On their way to starting the season 3-1 — the latest win being Saturday’s thrilling 31-30 victory in overtime against Pittsburgh last Saturday at Alumni Stadium — the Eagles have put themselves in situations where their fate has hung on every play.
In a 24-21 home win over Texas State, the Eagles crafted a comeback in the fourth quarter and won it on Aaron Boumerhi’s 36-yard field goal with three seconds left. The following week, in a 26-22 setback against North Carolina, quarterback Phil Jurkovec marched the Eagles 69 yards in 15 plays and capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Lewis to pull them within 2 with 45 seconds left. Calamity ensued on the 2-point conversion attempt when Jurkovec’s pass was intercepted and returned 98 yards for a “Pick-2.”
Then, on Saturday against Pitt, the Eagles ran off the field in celebration after Panthers kicker Alex Kessman, who converted a 58-yard attempt at the end of regulation to send the game into OT, missed a routine extra point that would have tied it at 31.
The wins make the drama worth it, but if they came with a little less stress, Hafley would take it.
“Do I wish every game came down to the last play?” Hafley said. “Not unless you could guarantee me we were going to win all of them.”
In order to pull out wins when every moment seems loaded with intensity, the Eagles have had to lean on a level of poise. They’ve made mistakes — from untimely penalties to missed tackles to missed assignments — but they can’t crumble and turn on each other when they do.
“I just think it goes back to the way we approach practice and the way we approach the game,” Hafley said. “We don’t coach tight, we don’t play tight, we don’t yell and scream at the players on the sideline during the game and get them all uptight, whether they drop the ball or get a [pass interference].
“We want our players to just be loose and play fearless. I think when you do that, and create the culture, I think when it comes down at the end, I just think you see more energy, more juice, more trust in each other and confidence.”
What allows Hafley and the Eagles to play freely on game day is an assurance that they’ve done all the work they can during the week to prepare.
“That’s my philosophy,” Hafley said. “During practice, yeah, we’re going to get on guys — hard. Our work week is hard. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are hard. We coach hard and we’re demanding and we’re hard in the meetings.
“But that’s our time to coach hard, right? So, by the time we get to Saturday, if we coached well, then the work should be done and now it’s time to let the players go play and let us go coach.
“I’m not going to sit there and yell at coaches and scream. No, the game plan’s done. If we did our job and the process was right, then Saturdays should just be go loose and let it rip and play.”
As soon the Eagles decompressed after Saturday’s win, Hafley looked at the film with the team.
The highlights were obvious — from Jurkovec’s 358 passing yards and three TD passes to sophomore Zay Flowers, who made six catches for 162 yards, to Josh DeBerry’s first career pick and Isaiah McDuffie’s 11 tackles. The ACC recognized Jurkovec and Flowers for their efforts with Co-Quarterback and Receiver of the Week honors.
So, too, were the lows — five pass interference penalties that nearly handed Pitt a win.
Taking everything into account, Hafley said, the Eagles never should have been in a position where they were biting their nails.
“All due respect to Pitt, and their staff and their team, that game shouldn’t have come down to the extra point,” Hafley said. “And I showed them that; I showed them why and I told them how we have to improve.”
The mark of a good team, Hafley said, is being capable of winning games and while still allowing room for growth.
“When you win a game, you can look at it two ways,” Hafley said. “You can just look at the result and be happy — and we are happy, trust me — but you’ve got to look at the process and make sure it’s right.
“You’ve got to look at the coaching, and you’ve got to look at the playing, and you’ve got to make sure it’s on point, regardless if you win or lose.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.