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November 26, 2011Carolina finished off a second consecutive season of unrelenting stress in style on Saturday with a 37-21 victory against Duke at Kenan Stadium in the regular-season finale.
The victory assures the Tar Heels of their fourth straight winning season, and they now have a chance to win eight games in whatever bowl they eventually attend.
Carolina ends the regular season 7-5. The last two years, these players and their coaching staff have weathered the loss of eligibility of eventual first- and second-round National Football League draft picks because of NCAA violations. The program has been hammered by an NCAA investigation and a string of allegations, some true and some false.
They even lost their head coach just one week before the start of training camp back in August. The journey might have crippled a lesser group. But when one stands back and looks at the body of work for this team, it's hard not to admire what these players have accomplished.
"These kids are tough, mentally and physically," interim coach Everett Withers said. "They mean an awful lot to me. They are resilient. They work their butt off every day. They try to do everything we ask them to do.
"They didn't bat an eye [when Coach Butch Davis was fired]," Withers said. "They came to work. I didn't know how they would react initially. When we started camp it was, 'OK, here we go.'
"Once we got about three or four days into it, it was like, 'OK, they're going to respond.' As coaches we had to respond because they did. I'm as proud of this football team as any I've ever been on."
The Tar Heels refused to let the adversity to tear them apart.
"This team and last year's team, there is a great family bond," said redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard, who gained 165 yards and scored a touchdown on 30 carries against Duke.
"[Bernard is a shifty runner]," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "And one of the things with Carolina's big offensive line, if we leave a gap uncontested, it's very difficult for a safety to get in there quick enough to stop a youngster like him. And when they get moving down on people, it minimizes your backer's ability to get to a gap; it minimizes your safety's ability to field.
"I thought they got more movement than most people have against us.'
Bernard gained 1,222 rushing yards in 12 regular-season games. His productivity on Saturday gave him seven 100-yard rushing games this season, breaking the freshman record of six held by Amos Lawrence.
"Even when I was not on the field last year, I felt that family bond," Bernard said. "That is one of the reasons I came to this school, that family tie. We've done a great job of finishing strong, even through the hard games and the hard losses."
The success on the ground helped quarterback Bryn Renner and wide receiver Dwight Jones have one of their finest days, too.
Renner completed 21 of 34 passes for 274 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Jones, a senior, caught 10 passes for 101 yards and three touchdowns to finish his career at Kenan Stadium.
"Dwight, for maybe the last month of so, you could see he cherished every day that he has been out there on the field, whether it's been the practice field or game field," Withers said. "Every day he has come to work it has been, 'I know I want to make sure I give everything because this game isn't promised to you.'
"You could tell that in his eyes," Withers said. "Every day we go in that locker room, Dwight has become the guy in that locker room. He doesn't say a whole lot, but when Dwight talks there are a lot of people in that locker room who listen."
The coaching staff moved defensive end Quinton Coples back to defensive tackle, the spot he played last season and he led a Carolina defense that held Duke to 46 yards rushing.
"We don't have an answer for Coples," Cutcliffe said. "We don't have an answer, obviously. We saw that."
Coples finished tied for second on the team with six tackles, while leading in quarterback sacks with two and three total tackles for losses, which included the two sacks. He also forced a fumble and recovered one.
"It was my last game here at Kenan Stadium," Coples said. "I'm a senior. It's a rivalry, so it's more personal. And I think I was more into it mentally."
And there was the matter of finishing with a winning record instead of breaking even.
"It's huge," Withers said. "All we want is the opportunity to win eight. When we stepped into this week, we said, 'Let's win seven.' First things first.
"Now let's see if we get to a bowl and win eight."