The No. 23 North Carolina football team will look to shrug off the off-the-field incident and the loss of two starting cornerbacks when the Tar Heels host the defending Big South co-champion Liberty Flames Saturday at 6 p.m. in the season opener.
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Both UNC and Liberty are looking to build off the momentum of strong finishes in 2013.
Carolina emerged victorious in six out of its last seven contests, including a romp over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, while Liberty closed with five straight wins.
Saturday’s matchup is the maiden meeting between the Tar Heels and Flames on the football field.
Return specialist and wide receiver Ryan Switzer says he’s just happy the game is at home. He says playing inside Kenan Stadium is a big deal.
“I think it helps our first game is home. Opening up away from home and having to take a plane is always tough. Now that we have a home game in front of our own fans, I think that’s going to help a lot,” Switzer says.
Switzer says even though this year’s opener isn’t nearly as high-profile as the game at South Carolina a season ago, the Tar Heels can’t overlook the Flames.
“Last year at South Carolina, you had Jadeveon Clowney and that kind of defense. I think Mitch [Trubisky] or Marquise [Williams] are going to feel more comfortable knowing they don’t have those guys running after them, but you still have to take every game like it’s a South Carolina,” Switzer says.
No matter who ultimately takes the opening snap for the Tar Heel offense, both junior Marquise Williams and redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky will see significant minutes in week one as the quarterback battle rages on.
Junior offensive guard Landon Turner is responsible for protecting the quarterbacks and says the upperclassmen will keep the underclassmen from looking past week one. Turner says he’s confident his teammates won’t be underestimating their FCS opponent this weekend.
“I’ve been in games that we should have won and we didn’t. That’s when it’s on the older guys to remind the younger guys that we can’t look past this game. None of us really have. I feel pretty confident that we’re locked in on Liberty,” Turner says.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora echoes the sentiments of his players, saying this is the only game that matters right now. He says he expects a tough challenge from Liberty.
“The next game is the most important game. It’s really the only game that this team has talked about. That’s something that was emphasized from the very beginning. There’s nothing else. When anybody asks about anything else in the schedule, I hope they’ve answered it the right way. That’s where our focus is. This [Liberty] is a good football team, a very veteran team,” Coach Fedora says.
As for the Flames, they came within a field goal of ACC foe Wake Forest just a few seasons ago and have challenged big-time opponents before.
Led by junior signal caller Josh Woodrum, the offense features an experienced field general that is starting for his third straight season.
The question mark for Liberty remains in the backfield. Leading rusher Desmond Rice will miss the entire 2014 campaign due to injury, so the Flames will hope to find an adequate replacement on Saturday.
Liberty head coach Turner Gill says his team is excited for the challenge of playing a nationally ranked team and is using the contest as a measuring stick for his program.
“It lets us know where we’re at in our program by playing a team of this caliber the first game of the year. Have we improved since our last football game? That’s what we always talk about. It’s a great test for us here early on. We’ll get a chance to know where we’re at,” Coach Gill says.
As for the Carolina playbook, Switzer says to expect some more aggressive, down-the-field passes called by new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.
“We’ve repped it a lot in practice. We’ve got a lot of deep balls in the game plan for Saturday. I’m going to be involved in a lot of them now that [Eric] Ebron is gone. As a receiver, you always want to get a deep ball. It’s going to be fun for me,” Switzer says.
The wide-open play calling is sure to excite fans, but Switzer is embracing another aspect of game day that is sure to delight most spectators and contribute to a more hostile environment for the opponent. Night games are returning to Chapel Hill.
“Those night games are a big deal. A lot more people come out. They’re a little more excited because they aren’t sitting in the 95-degree weather at noon. A lot of the old folks get to drink a little bit. I don’t know many folks that like to drink at 9:30 or 10 a.m. Hopefully, they get to drink a little bit before the 6 p.m. game, come out, and have a good time,” Switzer says.
The Tar Heels will be hoping there is reason to celebrate after the game thanks to a resounding win to begin the promising 2014 season.