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November 9, 2010
Yates leads UNC in improbable season
T.J. Yates leans back in a chair overlooking Kenan Stadium and ponders what has transpired in the last three months.
He runs his hand over day-old stubble.
A golf cap pulled down half-heartedly guards his dreary eyes.
"It's pretty remarkable how many players we've lost," Yates said.
Running back Johnny White will be the 31st scholarship player to miss a game for the Tar Heels this season when he sits out this weekend against Virginia Tech after suffering a broken clavicle last Saturday at Florida State.
What's remarkable is that this season wasn't supposed to play out this way.
With 13 players involved in two different investigations regarding contact with an agent or alleged academic impropriety, or both, many thought Carolina would open its season by getting smoked by LSU and then carry on with a disappointing season.
It's tough enough for powerhouse programs to absorb a double-digit hit to the depth chart and continue to have a winning season while contending for a conference title.
A program like Carolina, one that's in the process of rewriting its football identity and trying to become more than a middling contender in the ACC? Unheard of.
"But we've done such a great job dealing with all this adversity," Yates continued.
After dropping its opening game in Atlanta to LSU, the Tar Heels came home and lost to Georgia Tech.
At 0-2, a road trip to Rutgers presented a turning point for Carolina. It was a game that had to be won.
Carolina beat the Scarlet Knights, but the 17-13 victory didn't convince anybody that it could be a real challenger in ACC play with so many starters sitting out.
That's when you look up and realize that Carolina has quietly won six of its last seven games and currently trails only Miami and Virginia Tech in the ACC Coastal division.
North Carolina head coach Butch Davis said it all culminated in last week's 37-35 win on the road at Florida State.
"The lesson our kids learned is to keep persevering," Davis said. "Win a big game on the road with adversity, to practice, play, to overcome all the distractions, it means a great deal."
It would mean even more for the Tar Heels if they could knock off No. 20 Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill on Saturday. Carolina knows it must win out if it wants a shot at the conference championship.
"We try to look at every week as the biggest game of the year, but (this week) is even more important," Yates said. "It will determine the rest of the way.
"If we have any shot to get into the ACC title game, this is it."
Yes, Carolina must beat the Hokies, but a win alone wouldn't be enough. The Tar Heels need help, too.
To have a chance to play for the ACC title, Carolina needs to beat Virginia Tech and N.C. State and then win at Duke to finish the season at 9-3, 6-2 in the ACC.
Miami, who throttled Carolina three weeks ago, needs to lose at Georgia Tech this weekend and then beat Virginia Tech at home next weekend.
If this scenario plays out, Miami would have three losses in conference play while Carolina and Virginia Tech would have two apiece with the Tar Heels holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Hokies.
But, of course, Virginia Tech and its seven-game winning streak are first, and Carolina will have its hands full with Frank Beamer's boys.
Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor will garner much of the hype heading into the game - and rightfully so - but Davis expects to see a well-balanced and disciplined team, not just a one-man show.
"You know when you turn on the film you're going to see outstanding special teams," Davis said. "Tyrod Taylor is having without question the best season he's had since I've been here. They have excellent running backs, they run extremely hard, and they have a lot of them.
"They are playing with confidence, and we are going to have to be ready for this challenge."
Stop an opposing team's quarterback and you usually stop the offense, but that's not necessarily the case against Virginia Tech.
Tech's trio of running backs in Darren Evans, David Wilson and Ryan Williams are all capable of pounding you.
Evans and Wilson both average more than 5.5 yards per carry, and Williams has five rushing touchdowns on the year.
Deunta Williams, Carolina's free safety, has played his entire career against Taylor and knows that the Hokies can win on the ground or through the air. It doesn't matter.
"(Virginia Tech's) running game is key for them," Williams said. "And we are playing a guy (Taylor) who knows how to win. Just playing someone who knows how to win and has the heart of a champion is tough."
The heart of a champion wasn't something Yates heard too often last season, but it's exactly what the senior quarterback has shown this year.
Here's a guy who threw more interceptions than touchdowns last year and jogged off the field at the end of the season as boos cascaded down from his own home fans.
Yates didn't play well, but the blame for the offense's ineptitude shouldn't have ended with him.
Yates came back for his senior season without the starting job secure. After last season, some thought it best for Davis to hand the team over to redshirt freshman Bryn Renner and move the program in a new direction.
How did Yates respond?
He won the job in training camp - at least heading into the first week, anyway - and has quietly put together the best season of his career.
Through nine games, Yates has thrown for 2,312 yards and 15 touchdowns to only four interceptions. He threw for a school-record 439 yards last week against Florida State and needs nine completions to set the career record at UNC.
"(Yates) has made huge progress," Davis said. "The growth of a quarterback is being able to disperse the ball to the second and third guy (in the read) and move the chains, keep drives alive. (Yates) has just made outstanding decisions all year long."
It's a year that started out with so much promise in the summer before the investigations came down, and it's a year that is fighting to stay afloat when not many outside the Carolina locker room thought it could.
It's easy to wonder what could have been had Carolina had all of its starters on the field since Week 1. Williams admits that those thoughts occasionally cross his mind.
"Yeah, it's tough, but you can't think about that," he says.
For now, the Tar Heels won't. They still have an opportunity in from of them, and it continues with Virginia Tech.
Win, and dreams of an ACC title and an Orange Bowl berth carry on for another week.
Lose and, well, it's not time to go there yet. There's been enough negative for one season.
"Our coaching staff has tried to remain positive throughout the entire season," Davis said. "A week before the LSU game we announced, 'This is our football team, this is who we are.'
"Just play the next game as hard as you can and no regrets."
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