It’s hard to believe this was the same North Carolina team that looked at turns overwhelmed and underprepared to start the season. What a difference a couple weeks can make, playing at home can make, a little confidence can make.
Or scoring 59 points can make.
Whatever went wrong at Virginia Tech went right against Virginia, to the point where Cavaliers quarterback Brennan Armstrong shattered both the Virginia record for passing yards in a game and the UNC opponent record — breaking the mark set by Dave Brown on a day he and his Duke teammates would famously be photographed with the Kenan Stadium scoreboard — and still found himself chasing a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter.
Armstrong could only watch the other half of the scoreboard whir in a blur as the Tar Heels scored more points in a game than they had since 1936 in a 59-39 win over Virginia on Saturday, wiping out some of the bad taste from the Virginia Tech loss and, given the struggles of the rest of the Coastal Division, giving the Tar Heels what amounts to a blank slate going forward.
If it weren’t for a Sam Howell interception in the end zone that engendered what amounted to a 14-point swing late in the first half, UNC’s offense would have been all but unstoppable. The Tar Heels gave Howell time to pick out receivers deep downfield and opened holes for the running backs and did just about everything they didn’t do against Virginia Tech.
They got results. The Tar Heels had a 300-yard passer (Howell), a 200-yard receiver (Josh Downs) and two 100-yard rushers (Ty Chandler and Howell), and they needed all of that to avoid what would have been an absolutely catastrophic loss to Virginia, which was feeling pretty good about itself after wins over William & Mary and Illinois but suffered an outbreak of reality like most of the rest of the ACC on Saturday.
There was no way back from 0-2 in the Coastal Division for the Tar Heels, but that’s not an issue now. And the way things are going for everyone else, North Carolina’s position isn’t quite as dire as it might have looked after that dismal evening in Blacksburg.
On this day alone, Virginia Tech lost at West Virginia, Pittsburgh lost to Western Michigan and Miami, somehow still in the Top 25, was throttled by Michigan State. Virginia’s looking up at everyone now. The Coastal is up for grabs, and North Carolina still has a chance to rise above it. Even Clemson looks vulnerable on the other side, clinging to a one-possession home win over Georgia Tech.
Certainly, not all is entirely well in Chapel Hill. The defense is still very much a work in progress, as evidenced by Armstrong’s historic 544 yards. But it would have taken more than that to measure up to the (finally) explosive North Carolina offense. At some point, the Tar Heels are going to have to get more stops, especially at critical moments, so their offense isn’t under pressure to score on every single possession the way it was in the first half Saturday night.
And still, even so, this kind of offense will make up for a lot of ills. The team we all thought North Carolina was, the team North Carolina believed and said it was, finally showed up to play, not a moment too late. As the usual chaos descends, the Coastal is still out there for the taking.