UNC quarterback Bryn Renner passes to Erik Highsmith (88) in the second quarter against James Madison. Renner completed 22-23 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns in the Tar Heels' 42-10 victory. ROBERT WILLETT - email@example.com
CHAPEL HILL -- As the clock wound down Saturday on North Carolina’s 42-10 victory over James Madison, new quarterback Bryn Renner made it a point to track down interim head coach Everett Withers for a sideline embrace.
“The whole week we preached that we wanted to give this ball to coach [Butch] Davis,’’ Renner said, referring to the Tar Heels’ head coach who was fired five weeks ago, a year after the NCAA began investigating academic misconduct and impermissible benefits.
“… [Withers] has been saying all week that coach Davis built this team, and it’s his team -- and I think it was just a little moment where I needed to give him a little hug for his first win and my first start … it was a special moment, and I’ll never forget it.”
Indeed, with Davis in attendance at Kenan Stadium, both Withers – UNC’s defensive coordinator for the previous three seasons – and Renner, taking over for four-year starter T.J. Yates, recorded history-worthy performances.
Withers, a Charlotte native, became only the fourth African American to serve as an ACC head coach in a football game. Renner, meanwhile, posted an almost-perfect day, going 22-for-23 with 277 yards, three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing), and an interception. The sophomore’s 95.7 completion percentage set a single-game ACC record for a passer with more than 20 attempts; and was one-tenth of a percentage point shy of former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin’s NCAA mark (95.8), set in 1998.
“He threw that interception [meant for] me – and if I would have gone up and got it, he would have had been a perfect game,’’ said senior receiver Dwight Jones, who had a noteworthy game himself, catching nine passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. “But he played a great game.”
Both Withers and Renner credited the quarterback’s spectacular debut to the running game. The first offensive play of the Withers/Renner era began with an 8-yard run by senior tailback Ryan Houston, back on the field after a redshirt season. By the end of the game, Houston had 59 yards and a touchdown, while backup Gio Bernard recorded 64 yards and two scores.
“I’ve said this for the last couple of weeks: If we play good around Bryn, Bryn will play well,’’ said Withers, who was impressed by his quarterback’s calm and command. “And to me, that’s the bottom line. If you can run the football, if you can play action pass, if you can block on the perimeter, then the passing game will open up for Bryn, and I think that showed today in the numbers.”
Both Withers, Renner – and many other Tar Heels players – said they were inspired by Davis, who Withers expected to attend the game after receiving a phone call from him earlier in the week. (Athletic director Dick Baddour confirmed to the Associated Press that Davis was at the stadium.)
“Tuesday at about 1:30, Coach Davis called me, and I know why he called me at 1:30 – because at 2:10, we call a special teams meeting, and it probably hit him for the first time that he wasn’t going to be sitting in that special teams meeting; it hit me,’’ Withers said. “I told the kids Thursday we’re going to pack this ball up and give it to him.”
Withers – who also watched senior Quinton Coples post two of UNC’s five sacks, and the defense hold the Dukes to 211 total yards – said he felt comfortable in his new role on the sideline: “I’m looking forward to the next time I get to run off and shake somebody’s hand that loses against us,’’ he said.
As well as getting another congratulatory embrace or two from Renner – and the rest of his players.
“I think Bryn understands me and respects me as much as I respect him,’’ Withers said. “We’ve got a pretty good relationship; he’s the son of a coach, and he understands what coaches go through, and how things affect coaches and their families. He’s a pretty special young man.”