Before North Carolina’s last big in-state rivalry game, defensive back Tim Scott said there was no need for any motivational tactics on the part of coach Larry Fedora to get the Tar Heels ready for East Carolina.
“If we’re not motivated after they embarrassed us last year, then we shouldn’t show up,” Scott said.
The Tar Heels barely did. A year after they lost to the Pirates at home, North Carolina fared even worse in Greenville, losing 70-41. So as the Tar Heels prepare for another in-state rival, with even bigger stakes this time, Scott said he considered those lessons learned going into Thursday’s game at Duke.
Ahead of North Carolina’s biggest game of the season, the motivational miscue against East Carolina will serve as a cautionary tale for the Tar Heels.
“We talked about how we were motivated and ready to play, but when the game started we played lazy,” Scott said Tuesday night after a frigid practice. “If you play lazy against a team like Duke, they’re going to jump on you early. As good as they’re playing this year, if they jump on us early, it’s going to be tough for us to get back.”
After claiming the Victory Bell in eight straight seasons and 21 out of 22, North Carolina has dropped two straight to Duke.
The results might not have been as embarrassing as the past two with East Carolina, but there’s no less on the line when the Tar Heels visit the Blue Devils: bragging rights, a national television audience, the opportunity to deny Duke a second straight ACC Coastal Division title and a chance to clinch bowl eligibility without leaving it to the final game, against another in-state rival, N.C. State.
“They’re our biggest rival,” linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “We’re searching to get bowl-eligible. We’re 5-5 and we need another win to get bowl-eligible, so why not do it against our biggest rival, Duke?”
After years – decades – of success against Duke, the past two defeats have been tortuous for the Tar Heels. In 2012, the Blue Devils secured bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994 when Jamison Crowder caught the winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds to play.
Last year in Chapel Hill, DeVon Edwards scored the winning touchdown on a kickoff return, then sealed the win with an interception as the Blue Devils clinched the Coastal title and a 10-win season.
Those memories are all too raw for Scott and the Tar Heels.
“Two years ago, we lost on the last play of the game,” he said. “Last year, we lost on a kickoff return. We just put a big emphasis on, one play can decide the game. We have to make sure that play is on our side this time.”
Playing into the Tar Heels’ favor is the improvement they have shown over the course of the season – quarterback Marquise Williams in particular – while Duke appears to be headed in the opposite direction after Saturday’s home loss to Virginia Tech.
Wins in three of their past four games have put the Tar Heels in a position to get to the postseason, something that seemed unlikely after a 2-4 start that included the disastrous losses to East Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
“We’re not worried about any of that,” Scott said. “We just know we’re playing Duke this week. We’re going to come in as ready as possible and as motivated as possible.”
If a home blowout loss to rival East Carolina couldn’t get the Tar Heels in the right frame of mind for the rematch this season, perhaps the sting of those two close losses to Duke will do the trick against the Blue Devils.