CHARLOTTE — Larry Fedora raised the Belk Bowl trophy and moments later grabbed the microphone to thank the Tar Heel fans for their support.
“And next year will be even better!” Fedora promised.
Indeed, unless someone steals Fedora with an offer he can’t refuse, the future of Carolina football burns bright. In posting the school’s sixth straight winning record, the Tar Heels completed their late season surge to reach a mid-level bowl and avoided the dreadful 6-7 finish of .500 teams that sneak into a bowl game and then lose it.
The convincing 39-17 victory over a Cincinnati squad that went 9-3 against a puff schedule was just the right springboard to the off-season, signing another solid recruiting class and getting the young players who came on strong over the last seven games to full fledged status.
The game was on ESPN’s flagship station and showcased Carolina’s two biggest freshman stars, T.J. Logan and Ryan Switzer. Logan ran a kickoff back 78 yards for an early touchdown following a safety, and Belk Bowl MVP Switzer tied an NCAA record and set various UNC and ACC marks by bringing his fifth punt of the season to the house 86 yards and basically settled the issue (along with a great goal line stand following the Tar Heels’ only turnover).
Sitting three rows from the field was sensational Charlotte Catholic running back Elijah Hood, who headlines Fedora’s third recruiting class that signs in early February. They will have plenty of help, but Logan, Switzer and Hood will help make the Tar Heels the most explosive team in the ACC Coastal.
Injuries caused Carolina to put a makeshift defense on the field, using several players at multiple positions. But it still wreaked havoc on Cincy quarterback Brendon Kay, who came in completing just under 69 percent of his passes. Kareem Martin, who tackled Kay for the safety and has played his way into the next NFL Draft picture, led the charge that sacked Kay five times and harassed him for most of the cool night at Bank of America Stadium.
The recent magic of the pro Panthers on the same field might have rubbed off on their college namesake, as the Tar Heels snapped a three-bowl losing streak in the stadium. (They are 2-0 against N.C. State in regular-season games there, by the way.) Carolina was the far superior team in all phases, and the respective records are a direct reflection of each team’s schedule this season.
The Belk Bowl is here to stay for a while, as the regional department store chain has signed on for six more years. And the crowd, a respectable 45,211 in the cavernous stadium, arrived early and created a serious logjam outside around the Fan Zone to see Belk-sponsored country music star Blake Shelton perform.
On the field, the Tar Heels were the show, moving the ball almost at will once quarterback and Charlotte native Marquise Williams got over his first-quarter jitters and threw for 171 yards to seven different receivers. Eric Ebron, playing his last college game, caught seven balls and, ironically, Marquise’s only TD pass was on tight end Jack Tabb’s only catch. The Heels ran for a balanced 174 yards by committee, with Logan ‘s 77 leading the fray.
Any distraction caused by the loss of offensive coordinator Blake Anderson to coach at Arkansas State was not apparent. Assistant Walt Bell called the plays and reportedly will go with Anderson. Fedora could promote another coach to OC, but the numerous calls he has received from interested candidates means they will be just fine.
Besides, everyone knows Fedora created and has coached this run-and-gun attack throughout his career and is the REAL offensive coordinator.
So when Fedora toasted the fans and promised better things to come, he meant a better record and bigger bowl and, perhaps, returning to Charlotte for an ACC Championship game appearance sometime soon.
Fedora was also carrying the hopes of Tar Heels everywhere that 2014 would bring only good times and the end of the strife UNC Athletics has fought its way through since the summer of 2010. He didn’t, but Blake Shelton could have finished his show by singing a new song he wrote:
Oh, Bubba, don’t let Larry go to Texas (or anywhere else)!