North Carolina needed a win on Saturday.
Even if it did come against an FCS program in Western Carolina. After six consecutive losses — the last five by one or two possessions — it began to weigh on the players and its coach, Larry Fedora. And they had almost forgotten what it felt like to win.
But after Saturday’s 49-26 victory over Western Carolina (3-8), they remembered how it felt.
“It’s been so long,” junior quarterback Nathan Elliott said. “We were close every week. And we finally got that win. I think it can propel us into this next one and give us a confidence boost going into this next game.”
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The next game is the Tar Heels’ biggest of the season.
UNC (2-8, 1-6 ACC) will play rival N.C. State (7-3, 4-3) next week in what will likely be its season finale. UNC could add a 12th game to its schedule. The Wolfpack is coming off a 52-10 win against Louisville (2-9, 0-8) on the road, and hope to increase its chances at a good bowl game.
The Tar Heels would like to spoil that.
“N.C. State is probably our biggest rival,” Elliott said. “And so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Over the hump
Before that game, though, UNC’s players will celebrate its first win in nearly two months. Fedora had talked about how bad he wanted to help his team get a win. He had said they deserved it.
They hadn’t given up on each other, nor him, and continued to fight even after their losses.
“I was proud of them,” Fedora said of his message to his players. “I told them if they prepared hard and they played hard, we’d win the football game. And that’s what they did tonight. And so, they did what they should have done. I told them to enjoy it, and be smart, and let’s get ready for the next one.”
Many fans upset with the losses have called for Fedora to be fired. A couple of fans in the student section wore paper bags over their faces that read “Fire Fedora.”
Earlier this week, Fedora, who is coaching his seventh season at UNC, was asked in a one-on-one interview whether he felt the results of the Western Carolina and N.C. State games would determine his future at UNC.
Fedora said he doesn’t look at it that way.
“I look at it like this game, this is the most important thing that I have going on,” Fedora said on Tuesday. “My life surrounds it. My family. Everybody. We’re all involved in it. So I don’t really look at it that way. I just look at this is the next game and it’s the most important thing that I’ve got going on, and I’m going to pour all my heart and soul into it for these players.”
After the game Fedora appeared exhausted.
The Tar Heels won on Saturday because they were able to drive down field effectively. The running game behind Michael Carter was working early, and it allowed Elliott to find open receivers when the Catamounts crowded the box. Carter had 45 yards rushing on six carries before he went down with an injury late in the first quarter.
Freshman Javonte Williams picked up where Carter left off. He had 17 carries for 93 yards and three touchdowns.
The Tar Heels had 18 chunk plays, nine passing and nine rushing. A chunk play is a pass of 15 yards or more, or a run of 10 yards or more. Elliott’s longest pass play was a 54-yard touchdown to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Rontavius Groves. Groves got past the Western Carolina defender and was open for his first career touchdown.
Groves injured his knee in the spring prior to his redshirt freshman season in 2017. When he returned later that year against Duke, he injured the other knee and missed the rest of the year.
“It was nice,” Groves said. “It was good just to be able to walk again, let alone run and catch a ball and score.”
The Tar Heels also had 12 tackles for loss, four sacks and a forced fumble on Saturday.
UNC senior defensive end Tyler Powell got into the back field and forced junior quarterback Tyrie Adams to fumble. The Tar Heels recovered at the Western Carolina 20, and four plays later turned it into a touchdown to go up 14-7 with about seven minutes left in the first quarter.
In the fourth quarter, with the game out of hand, UNC turned to its backups. Sophomore defensive ends Jake Lawler and Xach Gill had one sack each.
“It was good to see those guys in there and get some extended time,” Fedora said. “From the sideline they looked like they were playing hard.”
But while the Tar Heels played well at times, they still struggled with some of the same things that have plagued them all season.
For instance, UNC was 4-for-7 on redzone opportunities. UNC missed a field goal, threw an interception, and turned it over on downs in the redzone.
The Tar Heels came into the game ranked 110th out of 130 teams in redzone touchdown percentage (54.5 percent), which is one spot ahead of N.C. State.
UNC also had three first-half turnovers.
Elliott, who was 18-24 for 308 yards passing, and two touchdowns, was responsible for two turnovers, both interceptions.
That allowed Western Carolina get good field position and score. Elliott’s first interception, which bounced off the hands of sophomore wide receiver Beau Corrales on the first drive, was returned by Western Carolina linebacker Michael Murphy for 70 yards to the UNC 25.
Three plays later, Adams ran for a one-yard score.
Elliott threw his second interception in the second quarter. Junior cornerback John Brannon III stepped in front of UNC junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams for the pick, and returned it 12 yards to the UNC 30-yard line.
The Catamounts converted the turnover into a field goal.
Elliott said while he was happy with the win, he was not pleased with how he played. He knows turnovers won’t help UNC beat N.C. State.
“I thought I could have had some better ball placement on a couple throws,” Elliott said. “Those two interceptions are the only thing I’m thinking about after that game.
“So I’ve got to get that cleaned up.”
But in the meantime, the Tar Heels plan to enjoy their win. Because there was a time when they almost forgot what that felt like.