59 minutes and 52 seconds had elapsed. Time for one last play. It all came down to the defense -- eleven men needed to keep the other eleven out of the end zone. Period.
Two years ago, in a game that featured a similar finish, the North Carolina Tar Heel defense could not protect the lead on the game's final play. Saturday, with one play to go, Carolina again held the lead and the opponent had the ball with one last chance. Different outcome this time.
Rewind the tape to the Arizona State game in 2003. Carolina held a four point lead at home going into the game's final play. ASU's Andrew Walter was under center. 42,000 Tar Heel fans were standing as one and chanting, "DEE-fense... DEE-fense"! The ball was snapped. Walter dropped back. The crowd roared louder, The rush was coming. Walter dodged the first wave. Time expired. The defense was almost on him again. Briefly, Walter spied an open receiver and let it fly. Time seemed to stand still. Suddenly, the silence told it all. The only sound was a cheer erupting from the impossibly small number of Arizona State faithful in the far northeast corner of the stands. Touchdown!!! Dagger in the hearts of Tar Heel players, coaches and followers. The scoreboard blinked the bad news: Sun Devils 33, Tar Heels 31. It was midway into the season, but the loss set the tone for the stretch run and a final record of 2-10. It was tough being a Tar Heel in 2003.
Fast forward to Saturday, where underdog North Carolina is leading NC State's Wolfpack in Raleigh with but eight ticks left on the clock. Time for one more play. State's Jay Davis is under center on the Carolina 40 yard line. Everyone in the house knows he'll be putting it up for the end zone. At least 52,000 of the 57,100 in attendance are urging the 'Pack to "GO"!!! The ball is snapped. Twenty-two men move at once. Davis rolls to the right to buy time. Carolina has a three man rush coming and everyone else is dropping deep into coverage. Seconds tick off. The ball is in flight. Time again stands still. Defenders and receivers converge. Again, the silence tells it all. The ball falls to the ground. This time it's the Carolina fans whooping it up in the distance. The scoreboard reports the final score: Carolina 31, State 24. Big difference in just two years? Maybe. Certainly it's more proof the UNC defense is on firmer ground. Second heart-stopping win over NC State in the last twelve months.
Last October, the UNC defense preserved a 30-24 victory on two of that game's final three plays. On second and goal from the three, State's T.A. McClendon appeared to have scored, but it was ruled his knee touched the ground first. On the next play, McClendon leaped over the pile, but was met head-on by Kalif Mitchell, who knocked the ball loose. Fumble. Recovered by Carolina. Threat denied. Carolina took a knee on the last play to secure the win.
Has the Carolina defense managed to "turn the corner"? Is it markedly better? So far three games into the season it's ranked 50th over-all in Division I. Last year's defense finished ranked 109th. There's too much football left to say for sure, but another big step can be made Saturday.
Just like last year, Utah is Carolina's next opponent. It seemed as if the Tar Heel defense forgot to make the trip to Salt Lake City then, as the Utes were virtually unstoppable in rolling up 669 yards of offense and 46 points en-route to a 30 point win. Granted, Utah doesn't have Alex Smith at quarterback nor Urban Meyer coaching it anymore, but they're still running Meyer's offense -- and they still have a bunch of talented players from last year's team. If Carolina's defense plays the way it has so far this season, and the offense continues to improve as it has, a Tar Heel win is not outside the realm of possibility. We'll know more around 5:00 Saturday afternoon. Until then, let's not take anything for granted.