CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina is putting together another late-season turnaround.
The Tar Heels looked lost with bad defense and inconsistent offense during a 2-4 start, but they've won four of five since to become bowl eligible heading into Saturday's rivalry game against North Carolina State.
"I think our coaching staff did a tremendous job of keeping these guys together," coach Larry Fedora said Monday. "There was never any finger-pointing or any guys that were blaming anybody."
Last year, the Tar Heels (6-5, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) regrouped from a 1-5 start to win a bowl game. Now they're coming off a one-sided win at Duke as their Marquise Williams-led offense has been more efficient and their struggling defense has even come up with a few more plays, too.
Fedora points to his team's play on the offensive and defensive lines as a reason for the improvement.
"I feel like they are so much better than they were at the beginning of the year because they're playing way smarter, they're playing way harder," N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. "You can tell they've been playing for something — it was to get a bowl game and I know this week it's going to be to beat us."
UNC started the year with a national ranking and hopes of winning the wide-open Coastal Division. But their high-powered offense was up and down while the defense gave up a program-record 70 points and 789 yards at East Carolina to start a four-game skid.
But things began to turn in the Notre Dame loss when the Tar Heels stopped rotating Williams with redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky.
Williams has been playing well in a full-time role ever since. The junior led winning touchdown drives in the final 3½ minutes against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, and accounted for four touchdowns in last week's 45-20 win against the Blue Devils.
Williams ranks among the ACC leaders in passing, rushing, and total offense. He was named the league's offensive back of the week Monday for the second straight time and fourth time this season, though N.C. State safety Hakim Jones didn't sound too impressed in the first bit of rivalry-week chatter.
"I've seen him play a lot actually, between watching film, watching him live and seeing the Duke game," Jones said. "He's very hesitant for the most part, he runs the ball a lot, so at the end a few times he basically almost quits because he doesn't really like to get hit. ... Once you hit him a few times, he's going to hesitate going into the hole, he's going to start trying to pick other options."
Fedora seemed amused when asked about Jones' comments.
"Marquise will love hearing that," Fedora said. "I guarantee you."
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Raleigh contributed to this report.
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