North Carolina is gaining a reputation and now it’s up to the No. 12 Tar Heels to back it up.
“We’re living with different expectations,” coach Mack Brown said of the Tar Heels rising in the polls.
The next chance to build on a burgeoning football identity comes in Saturday’s home game against Charlotte, which will visit Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., for the first football meeting between the schools.
North Carolina (1-0) made a big jump in the polls — in part aided by the elimination of Big Ten and Pac-12 conference teams no longer scheduled to play in 2020 — after opening with a 31-6 defeat of visiting Syracuse.
A high-powered offense and a defense with serious talent and depth have the Tar Heels receiving expanded attention with their highest ranking in five years.
North Carolina has a four-game winning streak dating to last season. That’s the best stretch for the team since 2016.
Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell headlines the North Carolina offense, but more weapons are emerging. Javonte Williams is coming off a three-touchdown performance. He’s part of a backfield mix with running back Michael Carter.
“They’re as good as anybody,” Brown said of the running backs. “We’re very proud of them.”
Still, North Carolina had trouble firing on all cylinders in the Syracuse game, scoring only seven first-half points. The Tar Heels might have to grind out more drives, offensive coordinator Phil Longo said.
“Teams are going to want us to earn it,” Longo said.
Charlotte (0-1) carries confidence into Chapel Hill after threatening to pull an upset in its opener before falling 35-20 at Appalachian State. The 49ers entered the fourth quarter trailing 21-20.
“You miss an opportunity you’ve got another one (in the next game),” coach Will Healy said. “Guess what? It only gets more difficult.”
Charlotte will play its second game against an in-state team in a matchup that wasn’t on the original schedule. This marks North Carolina’s lone non-conference game on its revised schedule, amended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like the first games, they’ll play in a mostly empty stadium as state restrictions are preventing fan attendance.
This time, Brown expects players will be more comfortable.
“I think it will help all the teams in their second week a lot more than the first week just because we’ll be more prepared for no pageantry and no band and no cheerleaders and no students and no Bell Tower walk,” Brown said. “Everything is so different, that it’ll be more normal this week. I think because of that, everybody will have a chance to play better.”
Charlotte linebacker Tyler Murray said the 49ers learned what needs to be done with the toned-down atmosphere.
“We’ve got to bring our own juice,” Murray said.
Healy said: “It was odd. … I thought for the most part we had really good energy.”
Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds was just 11 for 30 for 140 yards in the opener, though he gained 41 yards on the ground. The redshirt junior, who has started 19 of the 20 games in which he has played, set a school record with 22 touchdown throws last season.
Likewise, Charlotte’s defense aims to be more efficient.
“We just have to get better on the third downs and long and not beat ourselves,” Murray said.
There are numerous ties between the teams, not to mention that North Carolina puts an emphasis on recruiting Charlotte-area high schools.
North Carolina defensive coordinator Jay Bateman was the Richmond defensive coordinator in 2004 when Healy was the team’s quarterback.
–Field Level Media