No. 23 Tar Heels hope to torch Flames in 2014 opener

Aug. 29, 2014 @ 03:36 PM

Whether it was 62-0 over Elon and 66-0 against Idaho in 2012 or 80-20 over Old Dominion last season, North Carolina has blown out lower-level opponents under Larry Fedora.

After an eventful week, the 23rd-ranked Tar Heels hope to continue that trend in their season opener against Liberty today at Kenan Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN3.com).

“You hope that it’s the culture we create,” Fedora said. “You talk about our brand, play smart, fast, physical and the next game is the most important game and it’s really the only game that this team has talked about.”

While this year’s first game doesn’t have the national appeal of last year’s opener at South Carolina, Fedora said he has prepared the exact same way for the Flames.

“There was a lot of hype surrounding that one last year with fans, media, everybody, so your kids might work harder in the offseason because they’ve got this big game,” Fedora said. “To me, this game is just as big. To the media, to the fans, to everyone outside, it’s not. But to me and to the football team it’s just as big.”

Throughout training camp the biggest focus had been at quarterback, where junior Marquise Williams has been battling redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. That competition may continue into next week — Fedora never announced a starter against Liberty, and both are expected to play.

But the storyline shifted earlier this week, when Yahoo reported that walk-on wide receiver Jackson Boyer was assaulted by a group of teammates at the team’s training-camp hotel. One day later, Fedora said that four defensive backs — including the team’s top three cornerbacks — will be suspended for one game because of a “violation of team rules.”

UNC’s newly promoted defensive backs could be tested by Liberty’s passing game. Third-year starter Josh Woodrum led the Big South with 2,581 passing yards and 19 passing touchdowns last seasons, and junior Darrin Peterson is a Big South first-team all-conference receiver who was second in the Big South with 58 receptions and seven touchdowns.

But Fedora said he wasn’t going to change the game plan to account for the losses in the secondary.

“It’s going to be an opportunity for guys to step up and make some plays,” Fedora said. “And it will be a great thing to see what our team does and how it responds to the adversity that we’ve created for ourselves.”

The defense does have a pair of experienced safeties in sophomore Dom Green, who started every game last season, and senior Tim Scott, who started his first three years at cornerback. The defense also got a boost on Wednesday when the NCAA cleared tackle Ethan Farmer, whose eligibility was in doubt because of an academic issue.

Farmer gives UNC five seniors in the starting lineup — including just one on offense, tight end Jack Tabb. Liberty is expected to start 12 seniors, though the talent differential has made the Tar Heels a roughly four-touchdown favorite.

The Flames are winless in three previous attempts against ACC schools. Recently the Flames lost at N.C. State 43-21 in 2011 and at Wake Forest 20-17 in 2012.

UNC is hoping to carry the momentum over from last season, when it won six of its last seven games. That strong finish led to UNC being ranked in the preseason for the first time since 2010.

Still, Fedora isn’t overlooking Liberty.

“This is a new team,” Fedora said. “We haven’t done anything yet.”

NOTES — UNC is opening at home at night for the first time since 2009, when the Tar Heels hosted The Citadel. … Liberty tight end Garrett Long is the grandson of Albert Long, the only four-sport letterwinner in UNC history. Albert Long played football, basketball, baseball and track and field before graduating in 1955. … Liberty passing game coordinator Joe Dailey started seven games at quarterback for UNC in 2006 after transferring from Nebraska and was the team’s leading passer. … The Flames have beaten two FBS teams in their history — Eastern Michigan in 1989 and Ball State in 2010. They have never played UNC or a ranked FBS opponent.