UNC heads into bowl game prepped by adversity
Redemption. Legacy. Fearless persistence in the face of overwhelming adversity.
For the North Carolina seniors, the Belk Bowl is so much more than a postseason appearance. And what they’ve survived in their tumultuous, NCAA sanction-plagued careers may have been a tougher opponent in the grand scheme of things than the brutally physical 9-3 Cincinnati Bearcats they play Dec. 28 in Charlotte.
Not to say Cincinnati is not going to be a formidable foe for the 6-6 Tar Heels. The Bearcats have been to seven bowl games in the past eight years, beating Duke in the Belk Bowl last year. They have a top-10 defense and were ranked No. 12 nationally in offensive yards per play (4.81).
By contrast, the Tar Heels started the season a miserable 1-5, lost starting quarterback Bryn Renner to a season-ending injury and were counted out of the bowl picture by nearly everyone. The program has been under duress over NCAA sanctions over rules infractions for academic fraud, impermissible benefits for players and unethical conduct by a coach.
But with a strong belief in themselves, the UNC squad reeled off five straight wins to become bowl eligible.
“Think about this senior class and what they’ve been through,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said at the close of practice Monday.
“They come in here and we start out with the investigation. They see it through. They have to be the one to bear the weight of the sanctions,” Fedora said. “And then they had three head coaches, they’ve had two staffs. I know (defensive end) Kareem Martin has had six position coaches. So some of these guys have had six and five position coaches. That’s difficult for a young man all the way through his college career.
“This is pretty special for these guys. These are the guys that held this football team together when we were 1-5. It’s them and the coaching staff that got that done, so I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished and obviously we want to win for them.”
UNC offensive lineman James Hurst said it is impossible not to ponder the what-ifs.
“It’s hard to look back and not see those things. We’re excited that we’ve been able to come through those on top and feel like we’ve always been able to turn it into a good thing no matter what’s happened to us,” said Hurst, a 6-foot-7, 305-pound offensive left tackle who made the All-ACC team and is an All-America candidate.
“We’re hoping that we can leave that legacy for the guys below us so they can see what we’ve done, see what we’ve been able to overcome and use that on the football field,” Hurst said. “It’s been tough at times, but I definitely think it’s prepared us for life and for football. I don’t think anyone can look back on that and say it’s going to hurt us in the long run.
“But it’s been a very unique experience, no doubt. I feel like we’ve made the most of it, and we’ve had a great time during our four years here.”
Although the team’s record made it bowl eligible last year, the NCAA sanctions barred UNC from postseason competition.
“The freshmen and sophomores, they have no idea what a bowl experience is like,” Hurst said. “Being a senior, I’ve been to a couple and it’s an exciting time, so we’re going to try to keep that message going and show them a good time and win, especially.”
“I’m glad to go to a bowl game,” said Will Dancy, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound sophomore offensive lineman from Graham who played high school ball at Southern Alamance. “It will be good for our returners to get momentum to come into the next season and also to send off our seniors with a victory.”
“This game will motivate us for next year going into the offseason and be prepared to jump off on a fast start,” said quarterback Marquise Williams, who took over as signal caller the last five games after Renner’s injury in the N.C. State game. “But we’re taking each practice like it’s next year, working better to get better with our craft. For me, I think it’s motivation. We had a struggling season this year. We didn’t expect things to go how they went, and so we want to use this game and try to go out with a victory and motivate us to go into next year and thinking about being 1-0 each week.”
UNC has had to adjust its mind-set quickly after a deflating loss to Duke to end the regular season and get ready for a bowl game.
“Attitude is, ‘Man it’s just been painful.’ We didn’t go out the way it was supposed to be this year. We were thinking about the Coastal (crown) and we didn’t take each game one by one,” Williams said. “But, hey, everything happens for a reason. Adversity’s always coming, so that’s the biggest thing. We just hit adversity, but now we’re back again.”
Fedora said the team will begin ramping up practices today in preparation for Cincinnati.
“We had a good workout Saturday morning, Sunday and another one today. So we’ve had three really good workouts this week and one last week, so they were ready to get back out here and get going again,” Fedora said.
He’s not worried about the players’ down time now that classes are out.
“They’ve got more time for themselves, actually,” Fedora said. “They’re probably watching a little bit more film. They’ve got time to be able to do that. So really there should be no surprises going into the game. They ought to have studied enough film where we know what’s going on.
“After today we start really focusing now on Cincinnati.”
He wouldn’t exactly say whether he is designing new plays or trick plays to inject some sizzle into the bowl game, but gave a little tease.
“We’ll just wait and see. I like to have some fun. We’ll do some things,” he said.
While both teams are capable of quickly putting points on the board, Fedora wouldn’t predict whether the game would be a high-scoring shoot-out.
“I never look at a game that way. We go into the game on both sides of the ball. On offense we hope we can score one more point than our opponent, and defensively we want to hold them to one less point than we score, and that’s all there is to it,” Fedora said. “I’ve never gone into a game and said it’s going to be high scoring or it’s going to be a low-scoring game.
“As soon as you think that way, it’s exactly the opposite.”