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Say what you want about North Carolina’s subpar 2017 football season, but one thing you can’t say is that this team quit fighting. Given the season’s many disappointments and implausibly bad injury luck, it would have been understandable if the remaining healthy Carolina players had decided to pack things in after an embarrassing blowout loss to Virginia Tech on October 21.
But to their credit, the team instead responded to that loss by giving now second-ranked Miami all they could handle the following week before fumbling away a chance to pull off a monumental upset in the last minute.
Such a disappointment might have again provided an easy opportunity for finger-pointing and poor effort, but in a credit to the culture of Larry Fedora’s program, Carolina bounced back with an inspired effort to earn its first conference win at a Pittsburgh team playing for a bowl berth on Thursday night.
RATLIFF-WILLIAMS PROVIDES A SPARK
Since third-string quarterback Nathan Elliott took over at quarterback after Chazz Surratt was knocked out of the game early against Miami, wide receiver/kick returner Anthony Ratliff-Williams has taken his game to a new level. Of the six touchdowns Carolina has scored over the last two games, Ratliff-Williams has been directly responsible for four of them, including three of UNC’s four touchdowns against Pitt.
Ratliff-Williams’ opening-kickoff return for a score provided a huge lift for a Carolina team needing a reason to believe, and his contested, juggling, one-handed 40-yard reception two drives later led to another score and a 14–0 early lead. And it was Ratliff-Williams’ three-yard fourth-quarter reception that put UNC ahead to stay.
But Ratliff-Williams hasn’t just made his contributions as a receiver and returner but has also been Carolina’s best big-play threat as a passer. A high school quarterback himself, “Ant” has thrown two of Carolina’s five touchdown passes over the past two weeks and completed another (to Elliott) that put the ball inside the opposing 5-yard line. Essentially, if Carolina has managed an explosive play the last two games, you can be fairly certain Ratliff-Williams was involved.
ELLIOTT PROVIDES A STEADY HAND
That should not be taken as diminishing the role of Nathan Elliott in confidently and steadily guiding the offense, and it’s clear that Elliott’s teammates have embraced the sophomore quarterback’s leadership.
Yes, Pitt brought the worst-rated defense Carolina has faced since Old Dominion into the contest, but Elliott was consistently reliable in making the right checks and reads and avoided taking negative plays against a defense geared toward producing them. As a result, the Carolina offense ran more smoothly than it has in months, with the 5.72 yards per play in this game the best figure since putting up 5.8 yards per play against Duke (UNC averaged a paltry 4.0 yards per play in October).
HEELS PUSHING THE PACE
If Carolina’s men’s basketball team’s 86–69 season-opening victory against a Northern Iowa squad picked to finish second in the Mississippi Valley Conference is a reliable indicator of what can be expected from the Tar Heels in the 2017–18 season, the theme is going to be “warp speed.”
Despite having their top two offensive threats (point guard Joel Berry and small forward Cameron Johnson) out due to injury, the Tar Heels flashed the ability to get the ball up the floor in a hurry with a variety of lineups.
An emphasis on fast-break heavy basketball has always been a big part of Roy Williams’ philosophy, but this team seems uniquely suited to pushing the tempo, as nearly every lineup Carolina puts on the floor features at least four players who can put the ball on the floor and get out on the break.
Luke Maye displayed a silky-smooth shooting touch and outstanding efficiency on his way to an 11-of-16 shooting performance (for a career-high 28 points), suggesting that the 6-foot-8 junior is ready to take the necessary steps forward to lead this team offensively.
Freshmen big men Garrison Brooks (14 points, 6 rebounds in only 18 minutes) and Sterling Manley (nine points, eight boards in 14 minutes) also appeared to be further along at this stage than expected.
Perhaps the most noteworthy element of the game, however, was the all-around performance of junior Kenny Williams III, whose defensive energy and newfound ability to drive the basketball were on display throughout his 28 minutes. Carolina led by as many as 31 points late as head coach Roy Williams played nearly the entire roster.