Tar Heels return to field with plenty of motivation

UNC will play Saturday for the first time in three weeks, and Mack Brown’s team looks like N.C.’s best hope for a national contender

UNC coach Mack Brown said the Tar Heels’ three-week wait to play their second game is like “starting over.” (Photo courtesy of the ACC)

The last time UNC played a football game, Sam Howell was 19, the Big Ten wasn’t playing football until spring and the Supreme Court had nine members.

Clearly, a lot can change in three weeks, like Howell, who celebrated his 20th birthday two weeks ago, and the rest of the Tar Heels prepare for a trip to Boston College this weekend.

“It’s the longest break we’ve taken in Carolina football in 68 years,” coach Mack Brown said. “We had a polio outbreak and took three weeks off.”

“I was 1 year old at the time,” Brown added with a wry smile.

That long break in 1952 also took place after the Tar Heels’ season opener. This time, a COVID outbreak on Charlotte’s offensive line forced the cancellation of the Sept. 19 nonconference game. UNC administration scrambled to find a new nonconference foe to play the following weekend, originally slated as an off-week, but nothing suitable could be found. Instead, the Heels will play Western Carolina on Dec. 11 in a Friday night home game — assuming, of course, an ACC conference game doesn’t need to be made up by Carolina that weekend.

In the meantime, the Tar Heels will have to get back to business with their first road game of the year.

“Does it still hold true that you improve the most between the first and second game if there’s three weeks between them?” Brown asked. “I think not. We’re starting over.”

Not that the news is all bad for UNC.

“We had two good weeks of practice,” Brown pointed out. “Some of our injured players who wouldn’t have been able to play should be back. The players think it’s really good because we’re fresh.”

The momentum and rhythm of the season have been interrupted, however.

“We are definitely starting the season over,” Brown said. “It seems like Syracuse was forever ago. I thought we were one of the fortunate teams to have two home games to open the season, to get used to playing in this (pandemic) environment. Then we lost our second game (to COVID) and now we have to get on a plane.”

Brown’s biggest worry is that the Tar Heels haven’t been at game speed, which could lead to turnovers.

“I’m concerned about ball protection,” he said, “because you don’t tackle full speed. We would have gotten some of that against Charlotte.”

The Tar Heels have quickly become the state’s last hope for a successful college season in 2020. The other three ACC teams in North Carolina are a combined 1-6, with the only win coming when NC State and Wake Forest played each other. East Carolina, Charlotte and App State are a combined 2-3, again with both wins coming over in-state foes (App over Charlotte and FCS team Campbell).

With an elite quarterback and plenty of returning star power on both sides of the ball, UNC is looking to make a national statement this year. The Tar Heels impressed in the season opener over the Orange and moved as high as No. 11 in the AP poll. They’re currently No. 12, moving down to make room for the Big Ten’s return to the rankings.

Looking at the Tar Heels’ schedule, a trip to the ACC Championship Game isn’t out of the realm of possibility. This week’s trip to 2-0 Boston College will be a test, followed by next week’s home game against a Virginia Tech team that looked strong in a blowout of NC State last week despite missing 23 players and two assistant coaches due to quarantine.

Then things seem to open up for the Heels. A trip to Florida State doesn’t look quite as daunting after the Noles have fallen to Georgia Tech and Miami already this season. Then comes NC State, which appears to be down from the years that the Wolfpack seemed to have the Tar Heels’ number.

A Halloween trip to Virginia will be a showdown, followed by currently winless in-state foes Duke and Wake Forest.

That will set up a pair of season-ending games that could determine who will face Clemson in Charlotte for a potential spot in the College Football Playoff — a home game against Notre Dame and a trip to Miami.

All of which is assuming that the pandemic doesn’t continue to disrupt things — a big assumption indeed, especially considering that Notre Dame is currently experiencing an outbreak on the team that postponed last week’s game at Wake.

For the time being, though, the Tar Heels are preparing for a game, something that hasn’t happened since back in the days that their quarterback was still a teenager.

“Even if we don’t play well,” Brown said, “I think it’s important to be playing.”