CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There was a distinct change in the mood around Navy Practice Fields this week as North Carolina attempted to move past its upset in Durham last Thursday and refocus for The Citadel on Saturday.
The Tar Heels (7-3, 5-2 ACC) were playing their best football of the season entering the Duke game and appeared on their way to a 10th-straight road win before their rivals outscored them, 28-13, over the final three quarters. In the postgame aftermath, the players sought to come to terms with the sting of a blown opportunity to apply pressure to Virginia Tech in the ACC Coastal Division race.
Georgia Tech granted UNC a reprieve of sorts on Saturday, upsetting the Hokies to keep Larry Fedora’s squad in contention. The Tar Heels can advance to the ACC Championship Game with a win over N.C. State paired with a Virginia Tech loss to Virginia next weekend. Playing that hypothetical game, however, is no longer a talking point around the Kenan Football Center.
“Right now the only thing we can worry about is The Citadel,” senior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “That’s kind of what got us in trouble last time, worrying about what other teams were doing and how we were going to be able to get in it. We’ve just got to worry about Citadel and let the chips fall where they may.”
Fedora has returned to his adversity mantra of going 1-0 each week, and that will be more difficult than it may appear at first glance on Saturday. The Citadel is one of only two unbeaten teams at the FCS level with a 10-0 (8-0 Southern) record and is currently ranked No. 6 nationally.
“I can assure you The Citadel is not going to come in here and feel intimidated by any means,” Fedora said. “They have beaten a FBS team in the last couple of years, so they will come in here expecting to win a football game in our home stadium.”
The Bulldogs run a version of the Wing-T, a rushing attack similar to Georgia Tech’s triple option with a few nuanced differences. The Citadel leads the FCS in averaging 359.9 rushing yards per game at a 5.5 yards-per-play clip.
“They run the ball very effectively,” Fedora said. “When they do throw it, they hurt you with it. They eat the clock. They limit the possessions that you get offensively, and so you better be very effective with your possessions. Defensively, we’ve got to steal a couple of possessions.”
The Tar Heels hope to benefit from their recall of defending Paul Johnson’s offense just two weeks ago, according to defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
“They understand the offense a little better now because there are some similarities,” Chizik said.
UNC held Georgia Tech to 20 points despite allowing 374 rushing yards at a 6.3 yards-per-rush average. Duke controlled the latter half of the game last week with its run game, churning out 227 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The Tar Heels have allowed six opponents to rush for 200 or more yards through 10 games.
The Citadel’s undefeated run through its first 10 games, as well as its ability to run effectively, has dismissed any notion that the Bulldogs will merely serve as a FCS road bump on the way to the regular season finale against rival N.C. State.
“They’re a really good team,” junior safety Donnie Miles said. “They’re undefeated for a reason. I think if anybody goes in with that mindset, then we’ll walk away with another ‘L’ because they’re really good at what they do.”
The other aspect is that UNC cannot allow the Duke loss to carryover and lead to a second, more humbling defeat in as many weeks. The Tar Heels instead need to reset and attempt to return to the trajectory that seemed so promising less than two weeks ago.
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