North Carolina football: Weiler plays hero with game-winning kick
Four seconds left, the game on his foot. Nick Weiler took his steps and prepared to attempt a 54-yard field goal. So much had happened to that point in the game, to set up this moment right here. But so much had happened in the career of Nick Weiler, too.
Saturday, Carolina jumped out to a 21-0 lead on the strength of a balanced, methodical offense, and a defense that stopped and forced three missed Florida State field goal attempts. The Tar Heels were piling up points while the Seminoles were missing opportunities. The 21-7 halftime lead could have been — should have been — more.
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"Unfortunately, offensively we gave up two drives in the first half," Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora said. "We wasted two drives there and really we should have been up more than we were."
Weiler missed from 51 yards out to begin the second half. The door swung open for the Noles, who took advantage, pulling within a score on their next series. After a Mack Hollins touchdown for Carolina, the Tar Heels had the opportunity to turn a 14-point lead into 16 when Malik Carney sacked Seminole quarterback Deondre Francois, it appeared, in the end zone. The Tar Heel offense had been the victim of three safeties in their first four games, and for once it appeared that the shoe would be on the other foot. Alas, the call on the field was overturned.
A frustrated, tired defense then allowed the Noles to drive 98 yards to pull within seven again, helped by a roughing the kicker penalty. After a quick three-and-out for the Tar Heels, Florida State tied the game on a Dalvin Cook rush. The Parents Weekend crowd at Doak S. Campbell Stadium was back in the game.
Carolina needed to score, needed to take command, and they put the ball in the hands of Mitch Trubisky, the first-year starting quarterback who continues to show remarkable poise in big moments. Last week, it was three fourth-down conversions to engineer the game-winning drive. This time, it was three connections to Ryan Switzer, one to Hollins and another to Thomas Jackson, the former walk-on who scored a 34-yard touchdown, the first of his career.
But, drama. Weiler's extra-point attempt was blocked by Walvenski Aime. Nothing comes easy for Carolina football. Florida State would have two minutes and thirty-one seconds to win with a touchdown and extra point of their own.
They got the touchdown. Of course they did. Francois scrambled and escaped a tackle to score with 23 seconds to play. Aguayo's extra point put them ahead 35-34. Might have been the game winner. Wasn't.
Trubisky had 23 seconds and two timeouts. "Just do what we do in practice," he said later. "Twenty-three seconds, we knew we had at least two or three plays to get down there. Two timeouts, we've got everything at our disposal."
He took the ball off the 25 quickly, with a 23-yard dart to Hollins. Thirteen seconds to play. Rather than stop the clock, Trubisky kept the offense moving. He looked for Switzer and just missed him, the ball glancing off the 5'9 senior's fingertips. Nine seconds. Timeout Florida State. Trubisky found Hollins again, but no catch. Pass interference on Tarvarus McFadden. "He was going to be open," Trubisky said. "That guy had to pass interfere, because it was going to be a completion."
Thirty-seven-yard line. Four seconds. Timeout, Carolina. Fedora didn't go speak to his kicker, didn't give a pep talk. Why would he? "He's got his pre-swing routine and everything, and I don't talk to him in practice before he kicks, so I don't want to talk to him in a game," the coach said. "What would I say? 'We need you to make it?' There's nothing to say, because he knows what he needs to do. And we have great confidence in him. He's one of the leaders on our football team."
Weiler. You wouldn't have predicted he'd be one of the leaders of this football team when he first arrived. Four years ago, he didn't play as a freshman walk-on in Larry Fedora's first season in Chapel Hill. The next year, he was the kickoff specialist, and a good one, booting the ball downfield to pin opposing offenses back. In 2014, he split kicking duties with Thomas Moore. Weiler was 37-37 on extra points, but the Tar Heel field goal unit was unreliable and eventually seldom called-upon, just 6 for 13 on the year. Because of their inconsistency, the entire offensive dynamic had to change. The Tar Heels took chances they wouldn't have if they were confident in the field goal unit. They'd go for it on fourth down in what would be field goal range. Not sure they could get three points, they'd have to go for six and seven. That team went 6-7.
"Two years ago, we struggled (on field goals)," Fedora said. "And since that time, Nick has been pretty much automatic all the way through he's got a lot of confidence, and he kicks with a chip on his shoulder."
Weiler took those struggles personally, and he went to work. Last season? He was 20-23 on field goals and kicked 67 extra points. He broke Don McCauley's single-season scoring record and was third-team All-ACC. He graduated from Carolina in May, but had another year of eligibility. He's now a graduate student in the Masters of Accounting program, balancing a course load unlike any of his teammates.
Weiler has been all but automatic, but he'd never made a field goal from longer than 49 yards out. He told his head coach that he felt comfortable if the offense made it to the 35-yard line. That would set up a 52-yard attempt. They didn't make it to the 35, however. They made it to the 37. Fifty-four yards.
"I knew the snapper Kyle Murphy and the holder Joey Mangili would get down, perfect snap," Weiler said. "I knew the blockers were going to block, and at that point I've just got to do my job."
So he did it.
Murphy snapped the ball to Mangili, who put it down for Weiler. The kick left his foot, the ball seeming to take forever to get through the uprights. The officials underneath the goalposts raised their arms. Good. Good. Good. Carolina wins at Florida State, ending a 22-game home winning streak. Carolina wins 37-35, by the same score as they had in 2010. That game, the Tar Heels needed Florida State's Dustin Hopkins to miss from 39 yards out. This time, they went out and won on the strength of Weiler's right leg.
Weiler didn't have time to reflect on his career when he lined up, but he would after the game. "It's been a heck of a journey," he said. "Coach Fedora always talks about having grit and just fighting though adversity, keeping your mind on the goal that's off in the distance. Those missed kicks probably made me stronger, not to mention a better kicker today.
And Weiler's adversity wasn't behind him on Saturday, either. Had he not missed early in the second half, the Tar Heels would have been ahead by two at that point. Had he not seen an extra point blocked, the game would be tied. Heck, if that safety had stood, Carolina would have had two points and a Florida State drive never would have happened. But you can't choose your adversity; you can only respond to it when it comes. Carolina left points on the field on Saturday, sure, but they didn't leave a win out there. They're taking it back to Chapel Hill, thanks to Nick Weiler.