Larry Fedora knows where he’s at. And it must be driving him a little nuts.
The hyperactive, Red-Bull-guzzling head coach of the Tar Heels obviously sees the potential of Carolina football, or he wouldn’t be here. Saturday, he dressed his team in almost acrylic light-blue uniforms with black numbers and trim, cool togs the kids must like.
His ground crew filled the CAROLINA TAR HEELS painted in the Kenan Stadium end zones with the argyle design, which alum Alexander Julian (who invented it 21 years ago for the basketball unies) must have liked. The weather was certainly likeable, the opponent manageable and the players prepared. Well, almost.
Fedora half-joked Friday that he expected a so-so crowd for the home opener and didn’t want to invite any recruits to the game. He’s going after the cream of the crop, head to head with the rest of the ACC and much of the SEC, and he wants the atmosphere that playing rival games has seemed to generate in his one season heresofar.
Kudos to the home side of Kenan and the packed Tar Pit. They were in dire contrast to the rest of the house. Season ticket sales were inexplicably down despite an improving economy and football program, so the sun-side glistened with silver benches. Unfortunately, that’s the side the TV cameras see.
A capacity crowd fires up the players when they take the field. It also impresses high school players, which is why The Hat didn’t invite any to the home opener.
It appeared the Tar Heels were still waiting for everyone to show up when middlin’ Middle Tennessee drove 80 yards with the opening kick-off to an apparent touchdown. Fortunately, the Blue Raiders’ score was overturned in the replay booth, the defense came alive for an exciting goal line stand and the Heels dominated the rest of first half on the way to a 23-0 score.
Keep an eye on junior Norkeithus Otis, who had five tackles and three sacks from the hybrid Bandit position. He will steal your heart. Romar Morris equaled his previous career high by scoring two touchdowns and Bryn Renner sneaked to his first of the new season.
But one of the captains, who had deferred after winning the toss of the coin, forgot to say “the ball” or “we receive” or whatever they tell the officials to start the second half. When he said “defend this goal” we saw something we may never see again – one team receiving the kickoff to begin both halves.
“We were trying to give them a little extra help,” Fedora deadpanned after the game. Ninety minutes earlier he had something else to say to the captain who forgot what to say. And it wasn’t, “Good job.”
Middle promptly finished its long drive this time, bursting up the middle to ruin the shutout. After Chapel Hill’s Thomas Moore booted his second field goal of the game and third of the young season (and remained perfect with 55 career PATs), Middle stripped slot-back Ryan Switzer across the middle and ran the fumble in to make it a 26-13 game. Remember, this was the same Middle that upset the same Georgia Tech team that scored 68 points in the same Kenan Stadium in Fedora’s first season.
He may have reached for another Red Bull.
Carolina hung on with Renner’s second touchdown pass of the season to Quinshad Davis and freshman Bug Howard’s first (his lone catch of the day). It only mattered to Fedora’s acid reflux that Middle went back over the middle for one more score to make the 40-20 final respectable (but still covering the 17-point spread).
The Tar Heels not only doubled Middle, they doubled Fedora’s pleasure from last week, when his team blew the opener at South Carolina on a few blown plays.
“It’s always preferable to fix mistakes after a win,” he said. “You don’t have that knot in your stomach and bad taste in your mouth.”
Fedora will have two weeks to keep from falling under .500 again, preparing to stop a Georgia Tech triple option that scored 70 points on Elon in its season opener and might score at least half that many this Saturday at Duke. The program The Hat inherited has lost four straight to the Jackets, 13 of the last 15 and hasn’t won in Atlanta since Mack Brown’s 16-13 squeaker in 1997.
So there’ll be more to worry about than the home crowd. Break out the Bull.