North Carolina is Seeking a Different Postseason Prize

North Carolina (1-0) at Wake Forest (1-0)

North Carolina star running back Giovani Bernard is eager for a chance to prove that their offense works against FBS teams.

Larry Fedora lives and breathes football, and doesn’t seem to care about anything extraneous. He doesn’t always know how to pronounce names. He’s not too into PR: he readily admitted he had no idea where Elon was last week. His North Carolina team is ineligible for postseason play this year, but there’s still a chance the ACC would allow them claim a Coastal Division crown (should they win it). He could still sweep their next four in-state opponents, starting this week at Wake Forest.

Somehow, Fedora and the Tar Heels have managed to block out all the distractions that have swirled incessantly around the team since late 2009. It’s likely at least in part due to Fedora’s simple approach: control what you can control. This week, he was asked what he thinks about the new kickoff rule where all touchbacks go out to the 25-yard line.

“Uh…I don’t know,” Fedora said. “I guess it’s all right. I don’t put a lot of thought into whether I like something or not. This is what the rule is, so here we go. My mind automatically starts, okay, how am I going to take advantage of the rule is now?” He’s not a big fan of the helmet rule either, but he quickly added, “It really doesn’t matter if I like it.”

The rules are the rules, both from the NCAA to Fedora and from Fedora to his team. It’s not a democracy. As coaches say far too often, it is what it is. North Carolina can’t play in the ACC title game, the stated goal of every team in the league entering the season. They can’t go to a bowl.

But they can run a fast-paced offense (the Tar Heels ran 63 plays through the first three quarters last Saturday). And it can run even faster. Quarterback Bryn Renner blamed himself for that. “I watched Oregon play (Saturday) night after the game and I was embarrassed because we weren’t going as fast as them,” Renner said (the Ducks ran 96 plays).

“I got caught looking a couple of times and that got exploited on film from Coach Fedora and (offensive coordinator Blake) Anderson, so I got an earful and I won’t let that happen again. I kind of let the team down in that regard of not pushing the tempo. It’s like fast-break offense. We’ve got to get up and call the next play and that starts with me.

“I can’t be a spectator – I might as well just buy a ticket.”

Hard to blame him for marveling at tailback Giovani Bernard, who racked up 203 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on just 13 touches. He returned punts for the first time in his career, something that has made North Carolina fans nervous about a potential injury.

Bernard was nervous on his first return, so he made a fair catch. On the second, he took it 30 yards and was starting to feel comfortable. His third attempt came in the second quarter. As he got ready to take the field, Fedora – who is in charge of the punt return unit – approached him on the sideline. “(Fedora) was like, ‘You know what? You could take this back if you want,’ jokingly,” Bernard said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? Watch this.’”

Bernard and his teammates are oozing confidence right now. Sure, they have nothing to lose. But they have plenty to gain. He can win individual accolades, which he would assuredly welcome. But they want to prove themselves as a unit. They understand that some of their numbers against Elon were dismissed because of the opponent, and they want to show the offense works against anyone.

“We just want to show everybody that we can play with the top dogs and not just Elon, not just smaller schools. We want to show everybody that we can do it against big schools,” Bernard said. “We’ve still got things that we want to fix up. But we’re going into every game and we’re hungry. We really just want to show everybody that we are that top-notch type of team.”

With a 1-0 start with 11 to go (and four more in-state opponents), they’re ready for Round 2 at Wake Forest. “That’s one of the goals of this football team is to do (win a state championship),” Fedora said. “This is the second one. It’s very, very important and our guys understand the importance of it.”

Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe is 30-8 against in-state teams (20-0 against all in-state foes except North Carolina and NC State). But Grobe is 4-3 against the Tar Heels and has lost two straight. Still, with Grobe getting improbable wins over more talented teams every year, this won’t be an easy game for the Tar Heels.

Wake squeaked by Liberty with a 20-17 win, and Grobe will have his team’s full attention. But Fedora showed in Week 1′s crisp performance that he has his team’s attention, too.

“It’s the next game. It’s the next opportunity. That’s the culture that we’re trying to establish. It doesn’t matter who you play or when you play them, where you play them, what time you play them, it’s the next opportunity,” Fedora said.

Random mascot facts: Since we profiled the Demon Deacon last week, it’s time for Rameses. UNC has kept a live ram since 1924, and as happens with live mascots, this one has been kidnapped a time or two. The most famous incident was in the 1970s when East Carolina students took him prior to a UNC Homecoming game. He lived in a frat house for a week and was released at the game painted purple and gold.

Pouting Rameses? (Taken in 1989, and that’s famous photographer Hugh Morton next to Rameses.)

Prediction: North Carolina, 37-19. The Tar Heels weren’t just impressive last week because they scored 62 points, or even because they didn’t allow any. Their execution was crisp on offense, defense and special teams and they committed just three penalties. Particularly considering they spent the off-season installing new schemes, that’s remarkable. Wake will play better than it did against Liberty. North Carolina will have to make sure they shut down Wake Forest wideout Michael Campanaro and make quarterback Tanner Price uncomfortable. But the Deacons’ offensive line looked shaky at best, and their defense will have to win the day. If the Tar Heels execute as well as they did last week, they should pass their first road test.

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