CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For most of UNC’s seniors, it’s poetic that their final game at Kenan Stadium on Friday will come against one of their biggest rivals, the N.C State Wolfpack.
The Tar Heels (8-3, 5-2 ACC) and N.C. State (5-6, 2-5 ACC) both come into Friday’s game with the ability to impact the postseason of the other. For UNC, it’s the chance to potentially end the Wolfpack’s season early by eliminating them from bowl eligibility. For N.C State, it’s the opportunity to seal off any chance UNC has of winning the Coastal Division.
For UNC’s seniors that will be taking the Kenan field for the last time, though, this game means much more than just postseason stipulations. This rivalry game is their last chance to leave a legacy.
“It’s our biggest rival in football,” senior offensive tackle Jon Heck said. “We know that they’re going to play us tough. In rivalry games that’s the way it is. No matter what a team’s record is, when you’re playing a rival it’s anyone's game really. It definitely makes it more of a memorable moment. If we can go out with a win against our biggest rival on Senior Day, that will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Senior receiver Ryan Switzer agrees with Heck’s sentiment, and acknowledges that while UNC-Duke reigns in terms of basketball, UNC-N.C. State is paramount when it comes to the gridiron.
“State is State,” Switzer said. “They’re right down the road, kind of like Duke, but they’ve had a little bit more prominent football program than Duke has. It’s definitely a big game, it’s a game that neither side wants to lose. Each side tends to bring a little bit more effort and enthusiasm to this game.”
Like Heck and Switzer, other seniors have their own motivation to try and go out with a win. For senior running back T.J. Logan, it’s about avenging the upset loss to Duke two weeks ago.
“It’s going to be hard to for me to lose to Duke and State my senior year, that would be too hard,” Logan said. “A lot of seniors have talked about that so we are going to come out and play hard.”
For North Carolina natives, the intensity of this game is inherited from a young age, but for out-of-state players, they are adopted into it. That is the case with senior defensive end Mikey Bart, a native of Buford, Georgia.
“I didn’t really grow up a UNC fan or nothing like that, but as soon as I got here, you realized that we hate State, and they hate us more than… well I don’t want to say nothing, but they hate us,” Bart said. “It means a lot and we’re going to try and get this last ACC win.”
While the combination of Senior Day plus facing a rival will have emotions running high, head coach Larry Fedora is doing his best this week to keep his players focused on the objective: win.
“Coach Fedora talked to us seniors and told us not to worry about it because some seniors in the past have worried about it too much and gone out there and played really bad, so we’re trying to approach it as a normal week,” Bart said.
While all the seniors have their own personal motivations, it's hard for them to forget what happened the last time the Wolfpack visited. Two years ago, N.C State routed the Tar Heels, 35-7, on Senior Day 2014.
“Nobody has forgotten two years ago and that was a nightmare for us and a terrible feeling,” Heck said. “Looking back when they came in and destroyed us, that’s one of the worst feelings I’ve had in my life.
“We owe it to the fans, to the program, and to ourselves not to let that happen again.”