CHAPEL HILL — There's no salve for hurt feelings like a blowout on a beautiful September day. For North Carolina, the past year has been a festival of bruised egos, ruffled feathers, nervous stomachs and divided loyalties as the NCAA investigation into the football program crawled toward its inevitable conclusion.
For the North Carolina fans still wounded, one way or another, by how the Butch Davis Era ended, Saturday's backhanded dismissal of James Madison will go a long way toward bringing a fractured fan base back together.
"This should prove to everyone we still got the talent," defensive lineman Quinton Coples said. "We're still going to go out and get the job done, no matter what happened in the past."
A 42-10 win over an FCS opponent is merely a small step forward, but any step forward is a good one for a program that has lost its way off the field.
The scars left by Davis' dismissal were all too apparent in the east end zone, where the well-heeled boosters were apparently hiding inside their new luxury suites. The Blue Zone proved to be aptly named for its wide expanses of empty blue seats, while the exiled coach was rumored to be watching the game from a suite in the upper level of the Butch Mahal.
Here's betting quarterback Bryn Renner's near-perfect debut performance will fill more of the expensive seats next week when Rutgers visits, because given the circumstances, with a first-time starter at QB and a novice head coach, it's hard to imagine things going much better for North Carolina.
Interim coach Everett Withers, coming from the defensive side of the ball, may not quite appreciate what weapons he has on offense. Renner's accuracy and ability to gun the ball down the field had receiver Dwight Jones calling him "a baby Brett Favre."
Jones, who contrived to snag a few of Renner's attempts into coverage, was dangerous both going up for the ball and after he had it, bowling over a pair of Dukes on his way to the end zone for his second touchdown. Running backs Ryan Houston and Giovani Bernard took advantage of an offensive line that far outmatched its opponent to combine for three touchdowns.
Houston, after the game, announced that he and Bernard would be "the best backs in the league this year." Bernard, asked for verification, declared that he and Houston and A.J. Blue "can be the best trio in the nation, honestly." While they set the bar high for themselves, Withers did the same for the team.
"We've been 8-5 with a lot of talent around here," Withers said. "We feel like if we do the little things right, we can be better than 8-5."
The secondary needs help - and will get suspended cornerback Charles Brown back next week - but it was clear that despite the manner of Davis' dismissal, he left Withers plenty of raw material.
Davis was somewhere within Kenan Stadium on Saturday. Withers wouldn't confirm that, but players said Withers told them he was there.
"I actually didn't see him today, but I would hope that he would be here today," Withers said. "He helped build this football team. For him to be here today would be an honor for me. He didn't tell me that, but an old ball coach is hard to keep away from a good ballgame."
What happened on the field Saturday, with Davis in attendance, is the first step toward fixing the ill will his departure left behind.