In advance of Saturday’s game at North Carolina, we reached out to Chapel Fowler, the Sports Editor for the Daily Tar Heel, to get his thoughts on Saturday’s matchup.
OR: It has obviously been a rough start for North Carolina, but what has been some of the bright spots for the Tar Heels?
CF: On offense, quite a few skill-position players have made a name for themselves. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding quarterback Chazz Surratt, as there should be. He played mistake-free football up until the end of the Duke game and has looked quite comfortable at the most important position in the game. There have been growing pains and frustration, but every signal caller experiences those.
Running backs Michael Carter and Jordon Brown provide a nice one-two punch. Behind a banged up offensive line, they’ve been inconsistent. They’ve been stuffed on a lot of shotgun runs, too. Both are young, though, and have shown ability. Wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams is a great athlete and is doing well as the top target for a team that’s lost Austin Proehl and Thomas Jackson.
On defense, the loss of linebacker Andre Smith put his backup, Jonathan Smith, on the spot. He’s one of a few young players on a pretty experienced defense. As a unit, the defense played well against Old Dominion and Duke with what looked like a “bend but don’t break” style that worked in 2015 and 2016.
I’d say the one main bright spot is one that comes out of necessity. A lot of first and second-year guys are getting valuable reps. Regardless of the team’s record, that is experience you can’t teach.
OR: What kind of atmosphere are you expecting Saturday? Despite the record, are fans still excited for Notre Dame to come to town? I went to the game in 2008 and it was loud and a great atmosphere (the stealth flyover was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen).
CF: Notre Dame is a historical program within the college football world. I think the Fighting Irish attract excitement wherever they play, regardless of record — kind of like the Steelers, Cowboys and Lakers. I’d expect a crowd somewhere between the Louisville game’s number (47,000) and the Duke game’s (59,000).
OR: How is Larry Fedora viewed by UNC fans?
CF: From what I’ve seen on Twitter, a lot are frustrated. Personally, I don’t think he’s on a hot seat at all. The school extended his contract through 2022, and he has brought UNC two of its best seasons in school history. He’s also had success in developing NFL talent (Mitchell Trubisky, Giovani Bernard, Eric Ebron, Sylvester Williams), which in turn helps recruiting players like Jordyn Adams, Payton Wilson and Tyler Shough in the class of 2018.
OR: UNC has had some success in recent years, but how is the program viewed as a whole? Is there excitement around the program or is it viewed as more of a bridge to get to basketball season?
CF: The high standard of the basketball program carries over to other sports, too. There’s a group of fans and students who care a lot, and others who don’t care as much. The last two years have definitely drummed up some excitement, and incoming recruits will, too. I don’t think labeling a school as a “basketball school” or “football school” is a bad thing — other athletic teams can still succeed without all the attention on them.
Fedora has the football team in a promising position, and UNC’s women’s soccer team is the most successful program in NCAA history. The same goes for other colleges. Duke is considered a basketball school, but it’s fielded successful women’s golf and men’s lacrosse programs in recent years, too. I can 100 percent understand why an athlete not on that one team in focus would be frustrated, though.
OR: How do you see Saturday playing out? How can the Tar Heels give Notre Dame some trouble?
CF: In recent weeks, UNC has played OK early and slowed down later. Against Duke, a Surratt interception ended it. At Georgia Tech, the defense played well in the first half, but allowed some long, game-breaking runs in the second.
If UNC wants to test Notre Dame, I think an early touchdown drive would be key. That, combined with more “bend don’t break” defense, could keep the game close in the first half. In the second half, it’s all about consistency — especially in the fourth quarter. UNC has been outscored 63-27 in the fourth this year. I ultimately think Notre Dame will win, but it could be close for a while.