Winning streak turns UNC's season around
Suddenly, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched to pencil North Carolina into a bowl game.
A two-game winning streak has the Tar Heels (3-5, 2-3 ACC) facing a now-manageable path to the postseason, with slumping Virginia (2-7, 0-5) up next.
North Carolina needs three wins in its four remaining games — among the three Bowl Subdivision teams left, only Duke has a winning record — to earn its first bowl trip since 2011.
That's a big deal for a team that started 1-5 against one of the nation's toughest early-season schedules.
Yet coach Larry Fedora says the approach hasn't changed, even though the results have.
"We keep talking the same way we have the last three weeks," Fedora said Monday. "Our focus is on being 1-0 (that week), finding a way to get it done. ... Whatever it is."
Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to the defense — which is no longer the worst total defense in the league.
The Tar Heels are up a spot to 13th and have allowed just two offensive touchdowns during the winning streak, and cornerback Jabari Price credits that to "energy and discipline.
"We kind of put the first part of the season behind us. We kind of just made a strong pact for everybody to play for the guy next to you," Price said. "It started (after the last-minute Miami loss) when guys were kind of down about it, but we just made the most of it and got better. We didn't pout, we didn't whine, nothing like that."
After five of its first six opponents gained at least 400 total yards, North Carolina held both Boston College and North Carolina State to fewer than 400 in a pair of wins.
That could make things tough for a Virginia team that has struggled to take advantage of its opportunities to score. The Cavaliers rank in the middle of the ACC's pack in total offense, gaining 371 yards per game, but average just 21 points — better than only Wake Forest.
"Having the ball is fine, but if you can't score points when you have the ball, that's the biggest thing," coach Mike London said.
The Tar Heels have become tougher to throw against. They held both the Eagles and Wolfpack to 176 or fewer yards passing after allowing every previous opponent except run-heavy Georgia Tech to throw for more than that.
"In the last about three weeks, you've seen us get a little bit better at" preventing big plays, Fedora said. "You start taking away those huge plays that we were giving up, and we were playing sound. It was just getting our guys to focus on each and every play.
"There's not a time you when you can say ... 'I can take a mental break,'" he added. "I think some of that was going on."
That could also apply to the team as a whole and its pursuit of its fifth bowl trip in six years.
The four remaining opponents — Virginia, Pittsburgh, Old Dominion of the FCS and rival Duke — each seem beatable on paper.
But the Tar Heels know they can't afford to take anything for granted.
"We put ourselves in a big hole early in the year by losing all those games," offensive tackle James Hurst said. "So now you've really got to win out if you want to go to a bowl game, and that's kind of our mantra — our mantra is to be 1-0 every week and that's all you can focus on. That's all you can control."