UNC's Price on Belk Bowl: It might be a runaway
Jabari, tell us how you really feel about UNC’s chances to upend the 9-3 Cincinnati Bearcats in the Belk Bowl (3:20 p.m., Dec. 28, ESPN).
“If we can shut down the pass game I feel like the game is going to be a runaway,” senior cornerback Jabari Price said after practice Thursday.
“They’ve got a great passing game. Of course, their quarterback has great passing efficiency, but that doesn’t phase us,” Price said. “We’re ready for the challenge. We’re going to be in their face on the 28th and we’re going to be ready to go.”
Bearcats senior quarterback Brendon Kay was 247 for 360, a .686 pass completion percentage, for 3,121 yards. His pass efficiency rating was 155.5, and he hurled 22 TDs against 11 interceptions.
Kay, like Marquise Williams, quarterback of the 6-6 Tar Heels, moved to the top of the depth chart after a season-ending injury to the starting quarterback. Kay replaced Munchie Legaux after he suffered an ugly leg injury in a 45-17 loss to Illinois on Sept. 7.
“They’re 9-3. A lot of people don’t think we’ll win it. But we don’t pay attention to records. We pay attention to what we see on tape, and I know we have a great offense and a great defense,” Price said. “They have playmakers, we have playmakers. But at the end of the day I feel like we’re the better team.”
UNC coach Larry Fedora was a few shades more reserved in his comments, which came on the day it was announced that offensive coordinator Blake Anderson was leaving the team to become head coach at Arkansas State. Fedora talked about how the teams match up and what needs to happen for a UNC victory.
“We know that they’re a good offense. I mean, they’re averaging 34 points a game,” he said.
“We’re going to have to try to stop the run and make them one-dimensional, and create some takeaways and all those things, and get the ball back for the offense,” Fedora said. “I’m pleased with the plan, I’m pleased with the way the guys are working at it.”
But Cincinnati will bring several offensive threats into the game, so the Tar Heels’ defensive strategy will not be as simple as focusing on stopping one or two players.
“They’ve got more than one good receiver. They’ve got a really good running back. The quarterback does a really nice job, so it’s not where we’re going to be keying on one guy,” Fedora said.
“We’re going to have to stay within our keys, read, have the discipline with our eyes where they need to be and do what we’re supposed to do,” he said.
He likes the intensity and concentration that he’s seeing in practice from the entire team this week.
“Their attitude, their focus, their energy level, all the things that we want in a practice, whether it was the first practice of the year or whatever practice we’re into now” has been superb, he said.
“I think these guys have done a good job of staying consistent through the year, so I’m happy with where they’re at,” Fedora said.
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin said Kay “can really throw the ball,” and has shown the ability to make “a lot of great throws.”
“I think the biggest thing for us is just keeping him uncomfortable back there, getting a lot of pressure on him,” Martin said.
That’s where the towering Martin comes in. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound first team All-ACC selection had 78 tackles this season, 20 of those for a loss. He sacked the quarterback 11 times, instigated 14 quarterback hurries, forced three fumbles and recovered two fumbles.
“The last few games of the season we were able to get a lot of pressure. We have to bring that to the bowl game,” Martin said. “We’ve had a lot of time to prepare, guys getting healthy, so I’m hoping with all this time we’ll be able to go into this game and put it on them.”
Fedora kept his cards close to the vest when talking about who is healthy and who is banged up.
“I don’t want to talk about those guys who’ve got bumps and bruises, and we’ve got a few just like always,” Fedora said. “Hopefully we’ll have them healthy by the time we get to the game.”
While the media was making much ado about Anderson leaving the team as play caller so soon before the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, Fedora and the Tar Heels players said it was not a distraction.
Martin said the team is taking Anderson’s departure in stride.
“He’s going from an offensive coordinator to a head coach, and that’s one of his dreams. You can’t fault a man for following his dreams,” Martin said. “It just happened that his opportunity came now. It would be selfish for us to be angry at him for taking something that he’s been dreaming about his whole life.”
Martin is more concerned about making sure his young teammates adjust well to bowl game preparation during the Christmas holiday.
“A couple of years ago we were in Shreveport for Christmas, and now I’m used to it,” Martin said, referring to the Tar Heels’ BCS Independence Bowl game against Missouri in 2011.
“I’m just hoping it won’t distract the younger guys, especially the freshmen. It’s the first time they’ve been away from home for Christmas, and that can be tough when you’re away from your family,” he said.
“But we’ll be in Charlotte, so hopefully some of those guys’ families can come up and they’ll be able to spend that special day. It’s kind of tough, but we’re a family here so we’re going to make the best of it no matter what,” Martin said.
With UNC getting ready to pack up and head to Charlotte, Martin waxed nostalgic over his stellar four-year career in Carolina Blue, and spoke of his pending departure as a motivational tool.
“It’s an extra pep in my step out here in practice. Tomorrow’s my last practice ever here on this field so it’s really coming down to the end of this thing, and I’ve just got to cherish every moment I have,” he said.
“I graduated this past Sunday in three and a half years,” with a 2.9 GPA, the public policy major said.
“Everything I do now is the last of anything. Tomorrow will be the last time I use the locker room for practice,” he said.
“You just got to take advantage because the next step isn’t promised, and you never know what could happen. Anything could happen. This could be the last time I play football,” Martin said.
“But God willing it won’t.”