Before they made their way to Kenan Stadium on Saturday to play N.C. A&T, some North Carolina players were back in the team hotel, keeping an eye on what was happening in another college football game a few states south.
Earlier in the day, Auburn needed overtime to defeat Jacksonville State, a lower-division opponent, and the result there resonated with some UNC players, who were preparing to play against an FCS team.
“That’s why you’ve got to take everybody seriously,” Elijah Hood, UNC’s sophomore running back, said. “You never know. I said going into the game, ‘I’m treating this team just like South Carolina.’”
A season ago UNC had difficulty looking past opponents or not taking them seriously enough. That didn’t appear to be an issue on Saturday during the Tar Heels’ 53-14 victory against the Aggies, a Football Championship Subdivision team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Before Saturday, N.C. A&T had only played two Division I teams / in its history. It had only ever played one ACC opponent – a 42-3 loss against Wake Forest in 2003. The Tar Heels made sure this one lacked drama.
The greatest news for UNC on Saturday was, mostly, that there wasn’t much news. The game lacked drama, lacked competitiveness and lacked meaning throughout the second half, which is just the way UNC coach Larry Fedora likely preferred to have it.
Fedora afterward spoke of things that only football coaches especially appreciate. Things like getting younger players more experience and playing time. And things like avoiding turnovers, communication problems and pre-snap penalties.
Those who remained inside Kenan Stadium might have bored at the monotony of UNC doing what it was supposed to be doing against an overmatched opponent. Fedora and his coaching staff, meanwhile, took great pleasure in the cleanliness of it all.
Fedora said his team’s execution was “much better” than it had been during a 17-13 defeat to open the season against South Carolina.
“And then we got to play a lot of kids,” Fedora said, “which is going to pay off down the road, because all those guys are going to help us at some point. So every rep they get is critical for our success.”
The Tar Heels led 22-0 after one quarter and 36-0 at halftime. By the start of the third quarter, the most entertaining action of the night might have been the show the N.C. A&T band put on at halftime.
Not the Tar Heels didn’t do their best to provide some highlights. Marquise Williams, the fifth-year senior quarterback who threw three interceptions – two in the end zone – against South Carolina, rebounded Saturday.
Williams’ goal, simply, was to play a clean game. Avoid mistakes. Avoid interceptions, especially.
He didn’t have any of those, and completed 15 of his 20 attempts for 211 yards and two touchdowns. After he ran for an 18-yard touchdown that gave UNC a 43-0 lead with about 13 minutes left in the third quarter, Williams received the rest of the night off.
“I didn’t lose my confidence after the first game,” he said. “I’m not a perfect guy. Everybody’s going to make mistakes. Everybody’s going to turn the ball over. I told my dad, I don’t remember the last time I ever played that bad. And we sat down and tried to count how many times I ever played that bad.”
Williams called his performance against South Carolina “a wake up.” He might have received another one during the game, too, when Fedora inserted Mitch Trubisky, the backup quarterback, on UNC’s third offensive series.
Williams and Trubisky, who passed and ran for a touchdown Saturday, rotated series early last season. Fedora didn’t say whether the rotation would extend beyond Saturday.
“I wanted to get him some meaningful reps,” Fedora said. “And I wouldn’t want to tell him that he was going so if the situation happens like that in the season, he’s prepared and ready to go.”
Fedora liked what he saw out of his quarterbacks against N.C. A&T. He liked what he saw, really, throughout a game that lived up to expectations. It wasn’t supposed to be competitive and, well, it wasn’t.
The Tar Heels didn’t commit a turnover on offense and forced three turnovers defensively. They took control of the game early and never relinquished it, and erased any hopes the Aggies might have had of keeping it close.
“We had a mentality that we were going to to out there and basically just destroy whoever was out there,” said Hood, who ran for 56 yards on 16 carries – all in the first half – after being relegated to the bench late in key moments of that loss against the Gamecocks. “That was the plan for South Carolina.
“I mean, we want to do the same thing to everybody we play.”