“I promise you, these guys don’t know anything about us. They don’t know anything about North Carolina.”
These were the words with which Larry Fedora addressed his team Saturday before they took the field against new in-conference foe Pittsburgh. By the game’s end, everyone at Heinz Field had become a little better acquainted with the boys from the Tar Heel state.
Fedora wanted to show the Panthers just what Carolina’s “Smart/Fast/Physical” creed was all about, and for the first thirty minutes of play, Marquise Williams and company seemed happy to provide a demonstration.
The UNC offense got rolling and put together a handful of impressive first half drives, scoring on four consecutive possessions to end the half. In spite of some moments in which Bryn Renner’s more precise passing abilities seemed to be missed, Quise’ ability to make plays with his legs again proved invaluable.
Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage didn’t exactly enjoy his inaugural ACC meeting with the Tar Heels, being sacked a total of 7 times for a combined loss of 83 yards. The Heels’ defense swarmed to the ball, in particular senior defensive end Kareem Martin, whose 3 first half sacks earned him Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Of course, we all know that Saturday was a tale of two halves, as Pitt would roll off 24 unanswered second half points to knot the score at 27.
For those worried that this was indicative of a complete lack of focus on the part of the Heels, I would respectfully disagree. Though Carolina certainly didn’t look polished coming out of halftime, their struggles were mainly the result of a series of costly fumbles and questionable penalties that brought Coach Fedora’s blood pressure to an all-time high.
From the sidelines, I looked on as the men in black and white stripes made a pair of terrible pass interference calls and, in a separate instance, inexplicably gave Pitt an extra down on a drive relatively deep in Tar Heel territory. It’s my sincere hope that someone out there will compose an end-of-year ACC referee highlight video set to the Benny Hill theme music.
But as Fedora said after the game, the Heels found a way to win, and that’s truly all that mattered.
The people of Pittsburgh might not have known the name “Ryan Switzer” coming into the game, but I’m sure they had learned it by day’s end.
Not only did the Panthers get an opportunity to familiarize themselves with their new rivals to the South, but the crowd in light blue was able to take part in an entirely new and unique gameday experience.
As the Gameday Affairs Chair for Carolina Fever here in Chapel Hill, I always try to make a point on these away trips of studying the local customs and rituals with regards to fan culture. This is partly to see how we measure up at UNC and partly to see if I can steal some neat ideas for cheers from opposing fan bases.
The first thing you notice in Pittsburgh, however, is something that can’t really be emulated: the stadium.
Heinz Field represents a top-of-the-line venue, hugging the banks of the Ohio River and boasting a gorgeous view of downtown Pittsburgh. The facilities are state-of-the-art and the bowl, though open behind one end zone, seemed to hold in a good amount of crowd noise. Granted, the Heels pounced early in Saturday’s game and left Pitt fans pretty dazed until late in the third quarter. On one particular third and long play for Carolina with a little over 7 minutes left in the fourth, however, the stadium was as loud as any I’ve heard.
Though they didn’t represent a huge contingent of the stadium’s population, the Pitt students were energetic for most of the game and kept their corner of the lower bowl lively. Unlike at UNC, the stadium is located several miles from campus, which I can only imagine hurts student attendance a bit.
This was really my lone issue with the setup: the stadium was too big. Pitt fans turned out in decent numbers, but the enormity of the venue swallowed them whole. The sparseness of the crowd gave the whole event the feel of a lower-tier bowl game for which no one was all that excited. Again, I don’t blame Panthers fans in the least: it’s simply hard to generate an electric atmosphere when every other seat is empty. These are merely the drawbacks of sharing a facility with a professional franchise.
Getting to witness gameday in exotic locales is always a treat for me, but I’ve also learned that nothing makes you appreciate home more than when you leave it behind.
In just a few days, the Heels will return to their own familiar stomping grounds. There, in a cozier forum nestled betwixt the pines, they will embark on a crucial two game home stand to decide their post-season fate. Music will blare, smoke will blast, and Carolina will take the field to battle once more.
Only this time, it will be in front of people who already know who they are.