Throughout the offseason, Yates heard the criticism that his struggles would keep North Carolina's star-studded defense from winning an ACC championship. He has responded by keeping the Tar Heels in title contention even after a couple of off-field scandals decimated that defense.
"It's hard to ignore that stuff," Yates said. "You try to say you're going to ignore it as much as possible, but you know it's there. ... I used it as more fuel for my fire in offseason training and in how hard I was working. I just kind of used that criticism to kind of push me so I could get better."
Yates definitely has gotten better. He just might be the most improved quarterback in the nation.
The guy who threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14) last season has the nation's lowest interception percentage this season. Yates has been picked off just once in 182 pass attempts. He also has thrown 11 touchdown passes to rank 25th nationally in passing efficiency, up from 97th last season.
"One of the things we really focused on [during the offseason] was not turning the football over," Yates said. "There was just a whole bunch of film study over the summer. We kind of evaluated what I was doing as a quarterback. I just kind of took that to heart."
North Carolina has needed a big season from Yates to withstand the turmoil brought by NCAA investigations into academic misconduct and improper contact with agents. Star defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and wide receiver Greg Little won't play a down this season as a result of the investigation. Free safety Deunta Williams missed the first four games, and cornerback Kendric Burney still is waiting to make his 2010 debut.
The Tar Heels' defense is still solid -- it ranks 33rd in yards allowed and is tied for 29th in points allowed -- but the unit isn't quite as dominant without Quinn and Co. Yates has helped the offense pick up the slack.
After opening the season with consecutive 30-24 losses to LSU and Georgia Tech, North Carolina has won four in a row. Yates went 17-of-22 for 325 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions last week as North Carolina beat Virginia 44-10 for its first win at Scott Stadium since 1981.
"T.J. Yates' poise and calm with the football generated big, explosive plays," North Carolina coach Butch Davis said after the game. "I thought that was extraordinarily critical."
Yates now must try to continue this roll as UNC enters the toughest portion of its schedule. The Tar Heels (4-2, 2-1 ACC) will try to boost their Coastal Division title hopes Saturday at Miami (4-2, 2-1). After hosting William & Mary next week, the Tar Heels travel to Florida State (6-1, 4-0) and play host to Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-0) and N.C. State (5-2, 2-1) in their next three games.
Miami ranks second in the nation in pass efficiency defense and had five interceptions last week in a 28-13 victory over Duke. The Hurricanes have 12 interceptions while allowing only three touchdown passes this season.
"They're the same Miami defense as always," Yates said. "They're very strong up front, very physical in the front seven and very, very skilled in the defensive backfield. They've got speed all over the place. It's going to be a fight for us."
UNC already has one loss within the division, so the Tar Heels can't afford to slip up against another Coastal rival. A victory over Miami would allow the Tar Heels to maintain realistic hopes of making it to Charlotte and playing the first ACC championship game in their home state.
That kind of finish would create some positive headlines for a program that lately has received an overload of bad news.
"This program has gone through a lot," Yates said. "There's a lot of negative light shining on us now. If we can get past that and make a run at this ACC title, it would be huge for the program, huge for me and for all the guys here, all the seniors we have. ... We've just got to take it one game at a time. We can't look too far ahead. Right now our biggest game of the year is right now against Miami."
Best matchup: Georgia Tech OTs Nick Claytor and Phil Smith vs. Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers. It would be easy to assume that an elite pass rusher doesn't make as much of a difference against a run-oriented team such as Georgia Tech, but Bowers is an exception. Bowers, the NCAA leader in sacks and tackles for loss, showed he could have an impact against an option team when he made 11 tackles against Georgia Tech in last season's ACC championship game. Bowers will play on both ends of the line at one time or another, so Claytor and Smith will get a shot at him. Tech's offensive tackles have struggled with consistency all season; they both need to play their best football if Georgia Tech is going to have any shot at neutralizing Bowers. That could prove particularly difficult for Smith, who is at less than full strength after sitting out last week's victory over Middle Tennessee with a sprained ankle.
Player on the spot: North Carolina TE Ed Barham. Barham, a senior, has the unenviable task of taking over for Zack Pianalto, who was playing as well as just about any tight end in the nation before breaking his right fibula last week. Barham isn't completely untested. He made six starts in place of an injured Pianalto last season and caught six passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. Nobody expects Barham to make the same kind of impact as Pianalto, but he needs to play well enough to allow the Tar Heels to continue emphasizing the tight end in the passing game. Barham's backup is Mississippi State transfer Nelson Hurst. Pianalto's injury also puts more pressure on WRs Dwight Jones, Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd, who will have to pick up the slack in his absence.
Numbers game: The notable accomplishments of Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor and Georgia Tech QB Joshua Nesbitt have brought some attention to former Clemson star Woodrow Dantzler, one of the great dual-threat quarterbacks in ACC history. Last week, Taylor joined Dantzler as the only ACC quarterbacks in history to run for 2,000 yards and pass for 5,000 yards in their careers. Taylor has 2,017 rushing yards and 5,596 passing yards. Dantzler passed for more than 7,000 yards from 1998-2001. Nesbitt has run for 2,718 yards, which puts him 44 away from breaking Dantzler's ACC record for career rushing yards by a quarterback.
What they're saying
"We've got to win on the road. I think sometimes our guys think we're on an amusement trip. We're on a business trip to win football games." -- Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, to The (Baltimore) Sun after the Terrapins' 31-7 loss at Clemson last week. Maryland has lost its past 10 games at opposing teams' stadiums
"We haven't beaten them since I got here, and they own us until we prove otherwise." -- Miami LB Sean Spence, to the (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel about Saturday's game with North Carolina. The Tar Heels have beaten Miami three consecutive times
"We play as a team, we lose as a team. No one side of the ball, no one position, no one player, no one coach wins the game or loses the game. It's all-for-one and one-for-all, and anybody that doesn't have that attitude doesn't quite understand what we're trying to get done here. Having said that, it wasn't good enough. And that's the bottom line to any individual's performance, any unit's performance, any coach's performance. It wasn't good enough. The object is to win." -- Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, on whether the Eagles' defense has become frustrated with their struggling offense in the wake of a four-game losing streak
"They beat us in two big ones last year. That's kind of tough to take. Obviously there is some bitterness there." -- Clemson QB Kyle Parker, to TigerIllustrated.com about the revenge motive in Saturday's game with Georgia Tech. Clemson lost to Georgia Tech 30-27 during the regular season and 39-34 in the ACC championship game last season
"People use the word 'swagger' a lot now. I said this earlier, but the science of winning is total and thorough preparation. Winning and being a winner is more important than swagger. Sometimes swagger involves display. Display without preparation becomes trash talk, and trash talk gets you beat. I want Duke football to have a swagger, but I want it to be backed up by a competitiveness and a preparation. It's easy to get knocked off a high horse if you're not careful." -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe
"There is no quarterback controversy. Marc Verica is our quarterback. He gives us the best opportunity to win any games right now until he proves otherwise. But we will continue to keep trying to find moments to put Michael [Rocco] and Ross Metheny in the game to find out how much they can close the gap, or how much they'll widen the gap between each other." -- Virginia coach Mike London, to The Washington Post. Verica threw three interceptions without a touchdown pass against North Carolina last week
Etc.: ACC teams already have matched their single-season record for scoring plays of at least 80 yards. The ACC has produced 15 of those plays so far this season to tie the record set last season. ... Boston College LB Luke Kuechly leads the nation in tackles per game (13.7). ... Boston College RB Montel Harris is 65 yards away from becoming the first player at his school to exceed 3,000 rushing yards before the end of his junior season. BC's only 3,000-yard rushers in school history are Derrick Knight (3,725 from 2000-03), Mike Cloud (3,597 from 1995-98) and Troy Stradford (3,504 from 1982-86). ... Duke K Will Snyderwine has gone 28-of-32 on career-field-goal attempts for a percentage of .875, which ranks first in school history. ... Florida State QB Christian Ponder is hoping the off week will give him enough time to rest his ailing right elbow. Ponder injured the bursa sac in his throwing elbow Saturday early in his four-turnover performance against Boston College. Ponder still expects to play Oct. 28 at N.C. State. ... Florida State G David Spurlock had his second concussion of the season against Boston College. "He'll probably be out for a while," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters. ... Georgia Tech has agreed to a four-game series with BYU that includes 2012 and 2014 games in Atlanta plus 2013 and 2017 matchups in Provo. ... Maryland WR/KR Torrey Smith is dealing with a sore ankle that has hindered his cutting ability. Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen is debating whether he should use other kick returners until Smith's ankle heals. ... Miami DB Latwan Anderson is no longer practicing with the football team. Anderson, the No. 15 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, enrolled at Miami on a track scholarship but also had planned to play football. He reportedly was disgruntled over a lack of playing time. Miami coach Randy Shannon said after Wednesday's practice that he didn't know if Anderson would return for spring practice. ... Miami LB Colin McCarthy has returned to practice this week after missing the Duke game with an illness. ... Virginia OT Morgan Moses opened the North Carolina game last week at right tackle to become the third true freshman in school history to crack the starting lineup on the offensive line. The others are D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Brad Butler, who accomplished the feat in 2002. The Virginia sports information department said Moses is one of eight true freshman tackles -- including four from the ACC -- to start an FBS game this season. The others were N.C. State LT Robert Crisp, Washington State RT John Fullington, Miami RT Seantrel Henderson, North Carolina LT James Hurst, Tennessee RT Ja'Wuan James, Texas A&M LT Luke Joeckel and New Mexico State LT Davonte Wallace. ... Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams has been practicing this week without having to wear a no-contact jersey. That increases the likelihood he could return to action Saturday after missing four full games with a hamstring injury. Virginia Tech running backs coach Billy Hite told the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot that Williams wouldn't play more than 10 to 12 snaps, assuming he does suit up this week. ... Wake Forest RB Josh Harris' 241-yard outburst against Virginia Tech last week represented the highest single-game rushing total the Hokies have allowed to an individual. Harris was the first Wake player to rush for 200 yards in a game since Micah Andrews gained 254 yards against Vanderbilt in 2005. Wake Forest lost both games.