In the seconds before North Carolina scored its go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday at Georgia Tech, Marquise Williams was running with his head turned behind him, looking at a football moving through the air in his direction, thinking one thought over and over again.
“Don’t drop this ball,” Williams, the Tar Heels’ fifth-year senior quarterback, said later, reciting that thought. “The ball was in the air for a good 15 seconds. I was like, if I drop this, I am not allowed to go back to UNC. I’ll walk back to Chapel Hill. No ride on the airplane or anything.”
Williams might have exaggerated the hang time of the pass. He wasn’t exaggerating the importance of the moment, though. Before that play, UNC was still attempting to rally from a deficit that was once 21 points. After the play, the Tar Heels held a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 38-31 victory.
Williams’ 37-yard touchdown reception, which came on a pass from junior receiver Quinshad Davis, will be remembered as one of the most dramatic moments of the largest come-from-behind victory in school history. It was a moment, too, that reflected UNC’s confidence in what has become its most reliable and productive trick play.
“I think that play right now for us is 100 percent,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said Saturday. “We’ve used it multiple times through the past three years. We hit them with the fumble, which was the turning point in the game.
“And while you’ve got (them) on their heels, I mean, (come) back at them with that big play.”
Davis’ pass to Williams came with about 11 1/2 minutes to play, moments after UNC’s defense forced and recovered a fumble. The fumble recovery, Fedora said later, provided the most important momentum turn of the game.
And the decision that followed, the one to call for the reverse wide receiver pass, came quickly. Davis entered the game knowing that on that particular play the ball would find its way to his hands. He entered with no shortage of confidence, too, given how often UNC practices that particular play.
“Man, every time we call that play,” Davis said, “I’m thinking touchdown.”
On Saturday against Georgia Tech, the play looked like this: Williams lined up in the shotgun, as he often does. T.J. Logan, the junior running back, lined up to the right of Williams.
I think that play right now for us is 100 percent.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
When Williams received the snap, he handed off to Logan, who ran a sweep to the left side. Then Davis, who after the snap had taken a quick step forward from his position out wide to the left, ran back behind the line of scrimmage and toward Logan.
He flipped the ball to Davis, who took about five steps with it before passing deep down the right side to Williams, who was open by several yards. UNC practices the play three times per week, Davis said. That includes Thursday when “we polish it up,” Davis said.
It’s a play, like a lot of plays, built on precision. Logan has to flip the ball to Davis just right, who has to be in the right position to make the throw. And then there’s Williams, who all of a sudden turns into a receiver instead of a quarterback.
In the moment Saturday, Williams said, he focused on “being patient and taking off.” Had he made it clear too early that he planned to streak down the right side, he might have tipped off the defense to what was coming. He didn’t.
Davis, meanwhile, said the play provides an “easy throw” for him, and the results suggest he’s correct. Saturday was the fourth time during his four seasons at UNC that Davis has attempted a pass during that play. All four of those passes have resulted in touchdowns.
Davis sounded like a coach on Saturday when describing how the play works, and what he looks for during it. When he first touches the ball, he said, his eyes go toward the outside receiver.
“I’m watching Mack (Hollins), because he was on the outside, I’m watching the outside guy,” Davis said. “And he’s running the post to take the (cornerback) with him and the safety. So he took his guy with him, (and) there was somebody in the flats (and) that left Quise wide open. So, easy throw.”
UNC ran the same play last season during a loss at Notre Dame. Davis also threw touchdown passes during the 2013 season in a win against Virginia and during a defeat against East Carolina.
Davis had executed the play before in a game, and executed it perfectly. But he hadn’t done it amid the circumstances in which UNC found itself early in the fourth quarter at Georgia Tech. He hadn’t done it with that kind of pressure, with those kinds of stakes.
No matter. After the fumble recovery, Fedora and his staff made a call that will be remembered for its boldness. Williams took the snap, handed to Logan, who approached Davis. The play was in motion now.
“And then there I was,” Williams said. “I was wide open. I was in heaven.”