Rivalry week comes early for banged-up Tar Heels

Saturday’s battle for the Victory Bell will mark the first time in the 104-game history of the series that UNC and Duke will have played one another in September

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Duke cornerback Bryon Fields breaks up a pass to North Carolina wide receiver Austin Proehl during last year's battle for the Victory Bell in Durham (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

CHAPEL HILL — Larry Fedora isn’t a big fan of playing rivalry games this early in the season. But considering the alternative, he’d rather do it now than face the prospect of playing Duke and NC State on consecutive weeks as his Tar Heels did in 2014.

“I do like having a little bit of room between them,” Fedora said Monday at his regular weekly press conference. “There aren’t a lot of teams that have multiple rivalries in a season. It’s tough to do that back-to-back.”

Saturday’s meeting with the Blue Devils at Kenan Stadium will be the earliest in the 104-game football history between the neighboring schools. It will also be the first time the Battle for the Victory Bell will have ever been played in the month of September.

The unusual timing of this year’s game wasn’t done intentionally.

As Michael Strickland, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for football operations, explained when the schedule was announced this summer, the early date was an anomaly brought about by conflicts in the Blue Devils’ schedule.

The Tar Heels will play their other rival, State, in the traditional season-ending slot on Nov. 25, also in Chapel Hill. Last season, UNC played the Blue Devils on two of the final three weeks of the season — separated by a nonconference game against The Citadel.

“The conference says we’re going to play (Duke) early, so we’ve got to be ready to go no matter what,” Fedora said. “I’d like to play them later in the season, but that’s a change that’s coming with all the TV stuff. They’re going to dictate when we play and it’s not necessarily going to happen at the end of the year.”

The good news for Fedora and his team is they head into Saturday’s game off their first win of the season, a 53-23 pounding of Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va. The not-so-good news is that they’ll face the undefeated Blue Devils with an injury-depleted lineup.

The Tar Heels (1-2) were without linebacker Andre Smith, their best defensive player, along with starting offensive linemen Cam Dillard and Bentley Spain, tight end Brandon Fritts and wide receiver Thomas Jackson for last week’s win. Offensive tackle William Sweet and defensive tackle Jalen Dalton were also injured during the game.

Fedora won’t know who or how many of those players will be ready to face Duke or how effective they might be until later in the week. He said he’ll prepare his team the same way no matter who is available.

“It’s just unfortunate,” Fedora said. “It’s the same old thing, the next guy’s got to get up and the next guy’s got to play, and you hope you can build some type of continuity at some point.”

If there was a silver lining to the injury situation, it’s that Fedora was able to go deep into his depth chart in the second half. That allowed youngsters such as redshirt freshman safety Myles Wolfolk (interception), redshirt freshman center Jay-Jay McCargo, sophomore running back Jhonathon Sutton (6 carries, 31 yards) and sophomore receiver Juval Mollette (first career catch) to see the first extensive action of their careers.

“We got to play a lot of young kids,” Fedora said. “That should be valuable going forward.”