CHAPEL HILL — A day after North Carolina placed its football program on two years of probation, the players were back at work, hardly rattled.
With the first road game of the season at hand - at Georgia Tech on Saturday at noon - the Tar Heels emitted the same steady focus that has been their trademark throughout the 14-month-long NCAA investigation.
"It's another one of these things we can't worry about it because we know we don't have any control over it," senior safety Matt Merletti said Tuesday.
"It hasn't changed for the players all along. The only thing we can control is how we play. That's the approach we've had all along."
The announcement Monday that the school was forfeiting nine scholarships over a three-year period beginning in 2012-13 and vacating wins from 2008 and 2009 was only the latest in what seems like a stampede of bad news for the team.
"I hate to say it, but it's just kind of normal. It's just something else for us to deal with, but I think we're used to it, and I think we do deal with it well," Merletti said.
The school did not put a bowl ban on itself, which would have ruffled the players and is something the NCAA could impose when official sanctions are determined.
But the pace of the case has been such that the NCAA probably won't announce its penalties until after the 2011 postseason games.
Barring unexpectedly quick NCAA action, the Tar Heels (3-0, 1-0 ACC) can stay committed to their dream of a championship season and top-tier bowl berth.
The game at No. 25 (Associated Press poll) Georgia Tech (3-0) will have a major impact on North Carolina's plans. In the USA Today coaches poll, the Yellow Jackets are No. 24 and North Carolina No. 25. The winner will likely move up in the rankings, but the loser will probably fall out.
For Merletti and his fellow defenders, facing the Georgia Tech option offense is an especially demanding way to open the road schedule.
"Against that offense, one defensive mistake leads to a domino effect," he said. "It strains you as much mentally as physically. Not all offenses are that way. You can't always react to what you see against the option if you're a safety."
Through the three home games, the Tar Heels have been "good enough, basically steady" on defense, according to Merletti.
"We've given up some yardage and done some bending, but we haven't snapped," he said.
That's been the case on and off the field.
Regardless of how you might feel about North Carolina and its situation, there's no doubt the eligible players during the past 16 games have found a way to keep their minds on the next day, next game, next play. There's no reason to believe that'll change at this point.
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