As North Carolina prepares to play Duke (6-3) on Saturday, UNC senior linebacker Cole Holcomb said the message this week has been simple.
“Gotta go get that bell back,” Holcomb said. “It’s been the focus all week. It’s not a good feeling when that bell is not at home.”
Since 1948, Duke and UNC have played for the Victory Bell, a traveling trophy that goes to the winner. While UNC leads the series 58-39-4, Duke has had the Victory Bell in its possession the last two seasons. Duke beat UNC 28-27 in 2016, and a 27-17 in 2017.
Holcomb, who leads the Tar Heels with 81 tackles, wants nothing more than to bring the bell back to Chapel Hill.
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“That would be icing on the cake, honestly,” Holcomb said. “For me, the way things have been going, it would really put things in the right direction for this team.”
The 2018 season was supposed to be a redemption year for the Tar Heels, who had suffered a slew of injuries in 2017. But UNC (1-7) lost its fifth consecutive game last week against Georgia Tech (5-4) at home 38-28. Saturday’s game is at Wallace Wade Stadium at 12:20 p.m.
The latest loss was a microcosm of how UNC’s season has gone in recent weeks. The Tar Heels have not been able to finish games.
Against Georgia Tech, UNC tied the game at 28 in the fourth quarter, got the ball back and had a chance to take the lead.
But junior quarterback Nathan Elliott threw an interception in UNC territory. Georgia Tech took advantage and scored the go-ahead touchdown.
Fedora said the Tar Heels are better than people think.
“That’s why I keep saying we’re close,” Fedora said. “We’re a better football team than what our record indicates, but we just haven’t gotten over the hump.”
The Tar Heels’ last four losses — against Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia and Georgia Tech — have come by 10 points or less.
“It’ll be nice to have everybody on the field that’s healthy, and our guys are going to go out and play as hard as they can,” Fedora said, “and we’re going to expect to win a football game.”
Duke struggled in October, losing to Virginia on Oct. 20 and Pittsburgh on Oct. 27. But last week the Blue Devils beat Miami on the road 20-12 and are once again eligible for a bowl game. Fedora said Duke’s success starts with their quarterback, 6-5, 220-pound redshirt junior Daniel Jones.
Jones has 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in seven games.
“He’s a really good football player,” Fedora said. “He manages everything. You blitz him, he knows where he’s going with the ball. He gets the ball out of his hands quick. He can beat you with his legs.”
Fedora hopes that having his top two defensive ends back from suspension Saturday will help slow Jones. Sophomore defensive end Tomon Fox and senior defensive end Malik Carney had both served staggered suspensions for selling team-issued sneakers in January.
Fox and Carney played together in UNC’s 24-17 loss to California on Sept. 1 in one of the Tar Heels’ best defensive performances of the season. But the pair had not played together since. Fox has one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss in four games this season. Carney has five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in five games.
“We’re (about) to put on a show for everybody,” Fox said. “Yeah. Meet each other in the backfield.”
Could Ruder or Fortin play?
UNC has again had to deal with a number of injuries this season, particularly at quarterback. Sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt went down with a wrist injury on Sept. 27 against Miami and has been ruled out for the season.
Freshman quarterback Cade Fortin injured his knee in the first half against Virginia Tech on Oct. 13 and freshman quarterback Jace Ruder injured his shoulder last week against Georgia Tech. Neither quarterback has been officially ruled out for the season though.
When asked on Monday whether it was possible either quarterback could return this season, Fedora, who doesn’t talk about injuries, said, “I haven’t listed them as out for the season. So, yes.”
Ruder was spotted after Wednesday’s practice walking around the stadium in street clothes. His left (non-throwing) arm was still in a sling.
“We’re not going to put them out there if they’re 50 percent and get hurt,” Fedora said. “If they’re able to go and we feel like they can help us win a football game, then we would. If not, we wouldn’t put them out there.”
UNC’s backup quarterbacks include Manny Miles, a senior walk-on and Anthony Ratliff-Williams, UNC’s top wide receiver, who was also a former high school quarterback.