In North Carolina's not-so distant football past, an early November victory at Pittsburgh might have portended significant things: an important step forward in the Coastal Division race, perhaps or, if not that, then maybe postseason eligibility.
For the Tar Heels those goals long ago became impossible to achieve. They arrived at Heinz Field on Thursday night a battered, bruised bunch – both in the literal and figurative sense – and UNC's goals, once so grand, had been reduced to the most basic of sporting objectives: Just win a game. Any game.
And at last, victory came. The Tar Heels' 34-31 victory at Pitt on Thursday night will not be remembered alongside the most special of coach Larry Fedora's six-year tenure. It will not be talked about years from now. It might, in fact, quickly fade from memory.
And yet what an important victory it was, too, for Fedora and his beleaguered players, who have watched the defeats, and their fallen teammates, pile up at such an alarming rate during the past two months. The Tar Heels had lost six consecutive games. More than a year had passed, before Thursday, since their most recent victory against a major-conference opponent.
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Now those streaks of futility are over, and they ended in large part because UNC, so cursed during the fourth quarter this season, finally found a way, and then held on. What did it mean, exactly? What was the significance of a victory – any victory – in this tortured, lost season?
Listen to Fedora and his players explain it. During the postgame celebration in the locker room afterward, Fedora said, there were “a lot of smiles, a lot of happiness. Some tears.” There had often been one of those three things after UNC's games this season, but rarely the other two.
“It's been too long,” said Nathan Elliott, the Tar Heels' junior quarterback who made his first college start. “We haven't had that feeling in too long. … You walk into that locker room, you think we're 12-0.”
Never mind that the Tar Heels (2-8, 1-6 ACC) squandered an early 14-3 lead. Never mind that they surrendered 267 yards rushing – the second-most the Panthers (4-6, 2-4) accumulated this season. And never mind that, during its final two possessions, Pitt apparently forgot that it had run so successfully, and instead decided to try to win the game with its anemic passing offense.
When time ran out, none of those things much mattered for UNC. What mattered, instead, is that for the first time since a Sept. 16 victory at Old Dominion, the Tar Heels looked up at a scoreboard to see that they'd finished with more points than the other team.
“Pure joy,” Cole Holcomb, the Tar Heels' junior linebacker, said afterward.
Holcomb and his defensive teammates endured the punishment of Pitt's rushing offense throughout the first three quarters. In the final one, after the Panthers went away from the run, UNC stopped Pitt on its final two possessions.
In between those, the Tar Heels reclaimed the lead they'd held for most of the game. They did so when Elliott, who completed 20 of his 31 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns, threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, the sophomore receiver, with about 6 ½ minutes remaining. Though this game might fade from memory, Ratliff-Williams' individual performance could endure.
His 3-yard touchdown reception gave the Tar Heels their final lead, one they held onto. Long before that, on the first play of the game, Ratliff-Williams returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. And between those two plays, he threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Josh Cabrera.
At other times during this bleak season, Ratliff-Williams has been something of a bright spot for the Tar Heels. He shined on Thursday night, too, though this time he finally had some company – Elliott with his composure on the game-winning drive; the UNC defense on Pitt's final two possessions.
Fedora afterward spoke of his team's effort and its “never-die … never-quit” attitude, one he said is personified by “the grit that they have.” And indeed, the Tar Heels have often played with grit – their 59-7 loss at Virginia Tech notwithstanding.
Outside of that defeat, though, UNC has more often than not been competitive. It was in position, late in the fourth quarter, to take the lead against Miami but instead suffered a 24-19 defeat on Oct. 28. And then, finally, came a break through at Pitt, where the Tar Heels sealed their long-awaited victory when Jordon Brown, whose fumble ended their late hopes against Miami, put the game away with two late first-down runs.
“Everyone was determined to close out the game, close out the win,” Brown said afterward.
It was something the Tar Heels had yet to do this season. And yet they tried not to think about any of that – the losses or the failures in those defeats. Instead, they tried to think of Thursday as the start of a new three-game season.
Donnie Miles, one of 18 players UNC has lost for the season due to injury, came up with the idea earlier in the week. He spoke with his teammates about separating November from the misery of the recent past.
“It doesn't matter what we did in the past, and what our record was in the past,” said M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback. “We want November to be the start of a new season, and something we can build to next season. So I'm glad we're 1-0.”
In the final moments on Thursday night, the Tar Heels did something they hadn’t done in a long while. They lined up, the seconds ticking away, and took a knee, their victory secure. Time ran out, and so began a jubilant celebration. It’d been a long time coming.