CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After an 0-3 start, something had to save a North Carolina offense that was struggling to move the ball and had a confidence problem.
It turned out to be the team's group of wide receivers.
Heading into Saturday's regular-season finale against Southern Methodist, Bosley Allen needs two catches to give the Tar Heels (6-5) three receivers with at least 40 receptions for the first time in school history.
But it wasn't always clear sailing this season for Allen, Sam Aiken, Kory Bailey, and Chesley Borders.
After the four combined for just eight catches in a 44-14 loss at Texas on Sept. 8, coach John Bunting issued a stern challenge to the group to start catching more balls and making big plays.
"I was counting on the wide receivers to come through, and at first, they didn't and I challenged them repeatedly," Bunting said Tuesday. "The press took note of it, and the players heard it every day."
Bailey, the senior leader of the group who has a career-high 40 receptions, said he heard the criticism loud and clear.
"It has not been an issue in the past where the receivers were challenged that way," he said. "It was good for us because it helped us realize what an important part of this team we really are."
In North Carolina's next game against Florida State, Aiken's spectacular 20-yard TD catch helped the team to a 7-0 lead and got the group of wide receivers fired up to play better.
"Sam Aiken kind of put his foot out and turned on Kory Bailey, who turned on Chesley Borders," said Bunting, who has watched the four combine for 21 TD receptions. "It is amazing what those guys have done. They've had a tremendous year. There is not a better set of receivers in the Atlantic Coast Conference than those four guys."
Bailey and Borders later caught long TD passes in that 41-9 North Carolina upset that helped start a five-game winning streak.
"We were all confident in our abilities and we knew what we were capable of doing so we didn't get too down on ourselves when a lot of pressure was put on us early," Bailey said. "We just got together and talked about going out and showing what we can do."
Bailey's leadership has been key as he has quietly build quite a resume with the Tar Heels. He is one of only three players in UNC history to catch at least 25 passes in four seasons and heads into this weekend's game with 135 receptions for 1,892 yards - both in the top five all-time.
Bailey was recruited by former North Carolina coach Mack Brown, and has played for two different head coaches and three different offensive coordinators in his college career.
"This senior class has been through so much here," Bailey said. "I joke about having to learn different offenses and just being productive in those offenses. That's something I'm really proud of. I've been able to be a solid contributor. It was almost like learning a new language every year."
"Somebody has to give you a spark to start the fire and Kory did that and Sam picked it up," said wide receiver coach Gunter Brewer. "They feed off of the leadership and Kory supplied that and he's had the type of year that everybody expected him to have and wanted him to have."
Bunting and Brewer don't know for sure if the challenge issued back in September helped stimulate the wide receivers, or if it was just solid blocking by the offensive line and better QB play from Ronald Curry and Darian Durant.
Whatever the reason, the coaches saw a much different group of receivers during practice the last two months.
"The ball started being delivered and we started catching it and we started making some plays," Brewer said. "Then, confidence builds from that."
"They practice hard against each other in terms of trying to make the tough catch over one another," Bunting said. "They're a real together group. They've been the real leaders on this football team."
NOTES: Durant has completed 66.3 percent of his passes in his last three games for 798 yards to move to 10th in the nation in passing efficiency. ... North Carolina hasn't played a regular-season game in December since 1972. ... Andre' Williams is still listed as the starting tailback despite gaining a combined 27 yards in 20 carries since getting 91 yards against Clemson on Oct. 20.
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