In each of the last two years, the UNC football team has allowed late-season losses to bleed over into postseason play—leading to back-to-back embarrassing failures in bowl competition.
After November losses to Duke and NC State derailed the Tar Heels’ ACC Championship hopes in 2016, quarterback Mitch Trubisky and company are hoping to rewrite the team’s recent history in Friday’s Sun Bowl against No. 18 Stanford.
When UNC head coach Larry Fedora laid out the goals he had for his team this season, they were almost identical to last year’s.
Fedora wanted the Tar Heels to repeat as ACC Coastal Division Champions, while again defeating each in-state school they played to take home the mythical state championship. UNC accomplished both feats in 2015, but fell flat in Charlotte against Clemson before allowing the most rushing yards ever in a bowl game during its loss to Baylor just weeks later.
Those late-season failures fueled the biggest change to Fedora’s approach to this season.
He added an extra goal for the Tar Heels. Win the last game.
Despite speculation wondering if Trubisky will leave Chapel Hill for the greener pastures of the NFL, the quarterback and the rest of his coaches and teammates insist UNC is dead-set on checking off at least one box from its season to-do list after failing in its pursuit of the first two.
“If we want this program to go where we want it to go, we have to finish off our last game,” Trubisky said. “That’s been one of our goals—win our last game. And to beat a big name like Stanford, that would be a quality win.
“We’re preparing as hard as we possibly can,” he continued. “We’re doing this for each other and for the program as well.”
Commitment to winning–and school pride–has become the underlying storyline in El Paso, especially after Stanford’s star tailback Christian McCaffrey announced he would be sitting out of the game in order to begin his NFL Draft preparation.
Bowl season often brings conversations about who wants it more, due to the fact that the outcomes of the games carry little weight outside of general bragging rights.
Players like McCaffrey and LSU star Leonard Fournette saw their games from this business perspective and chose to sit on the bench because of it.
Trubisky will play on Friday because he has yet to officially make his NFL decision, but UNC junior defensive tackle Naz Jones has been in the open for a while about his desire to forego his senior year in pursuit of his professional dreams.
Having ended each of his prior two campaigns with a sour taste in his mouth, however, Jones has chosen to view the Sun Bowl much differently than McCaffrey or Fournette.
“I’m cherishing these last moments that I have with this team,” Jones said. “We’ve all been through a lot over these past couple years—especially this season.
“So for me, personally, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to play with my brothers one last time.”
Although McCaffrey—last year’s Heisman runner-up who leads Stanford in rushing and in receptions—will not pose a threat to the vulnerable UNC run defense, it’ll be important for the Tar Heels to pretend as if he will.
Stanford thrives off of its rushing attack, and will continue to try and do so with backup Bryce Love—another speedy tailback who also happens to be a North Carolina native that picked Stanford over UNC as a high-schooler coming out of Wake Forest.
With that in mind, Tar Heel defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is helping Jones and the rest of his guys stay motivated by reminding them of all the success Stanford has had as a program in recent years—McCaffrey or no McCaffrey.
“Just remember, they’ve got other really good players,” Chizik said. “They won a lot of games with [McCaffrey] in limited playing time, and with him not playing at all as well.
“They’ve won the PAC-12 in three of the last five years, so they’ve got great players everywhere,” the coach added.
For this group of Tar Heel seniors, it’s important to them that they leave a lasting legacy to follow.
Should they cap another promising season with yet another disappointing finish, it’d be tough to argue they left the program with positive momentum.
That’s why, according to senior cornerback Des Lawrence, erasing the sting of the Duke and NC State losses—as well as the one from previous bowl games—means more than anything else for UNC right now.
“It’s more about getting the taste out of our mouths,” Lawrence said. “We know that we hurt ourselves [late in the season] more than we let the other teams beat us—but we still lost at the end of the day.
“So we’re just trying to go out there and win our last game,” he continued. “Regardless of who we’re playing—or who we would have played—we’re just trying to win our last game so we can go out on a good note.”