Until the second half of last week’s game against Virginia Tech, it looked like the Tarheels had a good season going. Not a national championship season, but the kind of season that can reasonably be called progress, and might even include a shot at having some fun in the ACC title race. Then quarterback TJ Yates went down with a broken ankle, consigned to the sidelines for six weeks.

Even though Yates isn’t on anyone’s Heisman list, the injury was a boot to the groin of UNC’s offense. Yates is a competent playmaker, able to get the ball into the hands of his potent receiver corps of Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster. The Heels’ main back, Greg Little, has been able to slug it out with opposing teams, but they rely on the three receivers for big plays.

It did not bode well that after Yates left the previously close game against Virginia Tech, the defense went to sleep and freshman quarterback Mike Paulus spent the fourth quarter trying to make up for his mistakes, which got increasingly worse.

But it was going to be Paulus or junior backup Cameron Sexton who would determine whether or not this season was going to stay on its promising course.

Would the ‘Heels even be able to make a decent showing against a Miami team trying to return to Championship form? The Hurricanes had a lot of raw talent, with an emphasis on ‘raw.” Coach Butch Davis let it be known that both backups, Mike Paulus and Sexton, would play in Coral Gables today.

Paulus started the game, picking up right where he left off at the end of last week’s collapse against Virginia Tech. Davis, who apparently was just checking, put Sexton in and left him in for the rest of the game.

And it was a great game.

UNC struggled in the first half, seemingly dazed by Hurricanes’ insane intensity. Canes Coach Randy Shannon has a crew of 23 freshman, 8 of them from Miami’s football powerhouse Northwestern High School.

(Downtown Miami (read: not South Beach) has an obsessive local football culture, and the youth leagues and high schools have been the subject of some good sports writing over the years (notably Robert Andrew Powell’s excellent We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football.))

Shannon’s young crew was overwhelming early on, knocking helmets off North Carolina heads (seriously, it happened four or five times in the first half alone), pressuring the passer on D and generally beating up the defense. Greg Little was a workhouse, as usual, but he was the only consistent positive. Once again, the Heels played hard but made too many mistakes, including the kind of dumb penalties that helped them lose the Virginia Tech game. By halftime the Hurricanes led 17-7.

The Heels apparently got tired of being bullied by young’uns, and dragged themselves back into the game on sheer tenacity, combining firceness and poise in a way that makes the rest of the season look like less of an endurance test.

Safety Tremaine Goddard was the game’s MVP, with two interceptions, including the game-winning pick in the end zone as the game ended. In fact, the Heels had big plays from all three star receivers, backs Little, Ryan Houston, and Shaun Draughn, and the entire defense. But Sexton’s steady hand and two touchdowns outshone Miami’s Robert Marve, one of Shannon’s brightest young prospects.

(Marve, by the way, appears to have his initials tattooed in four-inch-high script on his triceps , ‘R” on the left (which could be confusing) and ‘M” on the right. Could be useful if you’re walking along behind him and thinking, ‘Geez, what’s that guy’s name again? It’s on the tip of my tongue… If I could just see his initials I’d definitely remember…”)

If the defense can hold tough in pressure situations, like they did for almost the entire second half, culminating in Goddard’s grab, this team will be competitive. If Sexton can keep his head like he did when he hurled a touchdown pass to a leaping Brooks Foster for the lead with less than a minute left, Tarheel fans will be in for another good year.