North Carolina

UNC finds happiness at home in senior day rout of Western Carolina

UNC’s Jonathan Smith (7) evades WCU’s Kaleb Spry (65) after he scoops up a fumble and runs it back for a TD during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game played between the UNC Tar Heels and the Western Carolina Catamounts at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC, on Nov. 18, 2017.
UNC’s Jonathan Smith (7) evades WCU’s Kaleb Spry (65) after he scoops up a fumble and runs it back for a TD during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game played between the UNC Tar Heels and the Western Carolina Catamounts at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC, on Nov. 18, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

For the past two and a half months, North Carolina had found little comfort at home, at Kenan Stadium – at least on game days. It had become a place of pain, both the literal and figurative. The Tar Heels endured injuries here. They endured defeats. They attempted to play on, stay together.

At last they had some fun, too. UNC on Saturday against Western Carolina overcame an inauspicious start – an early deficit, a near turnover – and scored touchdowns like it once had, in much better, more successful seasons.

It took less than three minutes in the second quarter for the Tar Heels to turn a tie game into one they led by three touchdowns, and that was the most memorable, most important stretch of their 65-10 victory. The win was UNC’s first of the season at home, and first, overall, since Nov. 19, 2016.

The victory provided UNC (3-8) with another first: Its first winning streak of the season. The Tar Heels lost eight of their first nine games, but have since defeated Pittsburgh and now Western Carolina. The wins have created some semblance of momentum approaching the season finale at N.C. State next weekend.

That UNC dominated on Saturday wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Western Carolina (7-5), after all, is a lower-division opponent, with 22 fewer football scholarships at its disposal. Even so, the Catamounts struck first in the first quarter, turning a two-minute drive into a 7-0 lead.

Moments later, it appeared at first like they’d recovered a fumble when Nathan Elliott, the UNC quarterback, lost his grip on a pass attempt. The thousands of Western Carolina supporters who’d gathered here celebrated. More than a few in light blue groaned.

A review of the play, however, determined that Elliott’s arm was in a passing motion, and so it went as an incomplete pass. The drive ended with Elliott’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, and the Tar Heels, as it turned out, were on their way.

Their next five drives ended in the end zone, with touchdowns. Halftime was the only thing that put a stop to that streak and, by then, UNC held a 42-7 lead.

UNC’s 42 first-half points were more than it scored, combined, during four consecutive defeats earlier this season against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia and Virginia Tech. The 65 points, overall, nearly matched the Tar Heels’ total during their six-game losing streak earlier this season. They scored 74 points, total, then.

Back then, throughout late September and all of October, the UNC offense labored like it never has under coach Larry Fedora, who is in his sixth season. Since, though, the Tar Heels have found a spark with Elliott, the sophomore quarterback.

He passed for 240 yards and threw four touchdown passes in the first half – two of them to Josh Cabrera and another to Brandon Fritts. Amid those passes, Jonathan Smith, a sophomore linebacker, returned a fumble for a touchdown with about 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter.

That was UNC’s third touchdown in less than three minutes, and it gave the Tar Heels a 28-7 lead. The victory gave UNC a happy home finale, at least, amid a long season.

The Tar Heels were celebrating senior day, with some seniors unable to play due to injury. Austin Proehl, a senior receiver who hadn’t played since Sept. 23 after he suffered a broken collarbone, returned to play in his final game at Kenan Stadium. He finished with three catches for 52 yards.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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