Catamounts travel to UNC for battle of struggling teams

Western Carolina looks to halt seven-game skid against 1-8 Tar Heels

Western Carolina will need a big game from quarterback Tyrie Adams to pull off an upset in Chapel Hill this Saturday against the Tar Heels. (Photo by Rick Sammons / For the North State Journal)

CULLOWHEE — It’s been a season of contrasts for the Western Carolina football team.

The Catamounts began 2018 with three straight wins for their best start since 1976. But just when it looked as though they were ready to build on last year’s seven-win season and make a push for an FCS playoff berth, they suddenly forgot how to win.

Saturday’s 38-23 Senior Day setback to Southern Conference rival Wofford at E.J. Whitmire Stadium was WCU’s seventh in a row, its longest skid since dropping 10 straight in 2011.

And things don’t promise to get better soon with a trip to Chapel Hill against victory-starved FBS opponent North Carolina coming up in next week’s season finale.

“This team knows we can be good,” a frustrated coach Mark Speir said afterward. “We can play with anybody. We’ve just got to learn to make the plays.

“That’s part of growing up. If we didn’t learn anything in these last three hours, we’re wasting a whole lot of time. This is something that’s going to propel us into next year, learning to make those plays.”

In that respect, they’re almost a mirror image of this week’s opponent, UNC.

It’s not as if the Catamounts (3-7, 1-6) have been playing that badly. Among the losses in their current streak are a three-overtime heartbreaker against East Tennessee State and a six-point defeat at the hands of Furman.

They battled until the bitter end against the 14th-ranked Terriers last Saturday as well, jumping out to a 20-7 lead late in the first half on the passing and running of quarterback Tyrie Adams. He finished with 167 yards and a touchdown on the ground while going 23 of 36 for 229 yards through the air Saturday.

“I wasn’t really thinking about how many yards I had or how many completions I had,” Adams said. “I was just trying to do what I needed to do to keep drives alive and put points on the board.”

A 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior, Adams became just the fourth opposing player in the last 62 games to rush for more than 100 yards against a Wofford defense ranked second in the SoCon and 13th nationally. For the season, he leads the Southern Conference in rushing and ranks third in passing efficiency.

“Ty is a tremendous player and we’re glad he’s on our team,” Speir said. “He may not win (SoCon Player of the Year). Sometimes the best player doesn’t win because he’s not on a winning team. But if you ask any coach in this league if they had to pick one guy to be on their team, I think it would be Tyre Adams.”

Adams and his teammates will have their hands full in their season finale in Chapel Hill.

Despite their similarities, the teams have faced vastly different levels of competition and are stocked with a vastly different caliber of players. The disparity is best illustrated by the first ever meeting between the Tar Heels and Catamounts — last year at Kenan Stadium.

WCU came into the game at 7-4 while UNC was 2-8. But the game was never close. The Tar Heels scored on six of their first seven possessions on the way to a 65-10 rout.

“We’re going to get ready, we’re going to prepare to go down there and play well,” Speir said of Saturday’s rematch. “We’re going to keep fighting for these seniors and for the future of our program. If we continue to get better and grow, I think we’ve got a lot of promise.”