True to his word, North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora is still starting team meetings with the same phrase, even though half of it is already moot: “Coastal Division champs, state champs.”
“I’m not going to change,” Fedora said.
Fedora is nothing if not stubborn, as evidenced Monday by his refusal to even entertain a question about whether N.C. State’s rhetoric last season still bothered him, but in this case there’s no time nor reason for North Carolina to relax anyway.
Even if the Tar Heels wanted to rest on their accomplishments after clinching the Coastal and a trip to face Clemson in Charlotte, the memories of last season’s loss to the Wolfpack still run deep, as does the desire to achieve the second half of Fedora’s goal statement.
“We’ve just got to get back to work,” North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams said. “This is one of our biggest rivalries for us this week and there’s still a lot of football left to be played. We can’t get too complacent. We had to celebrate that Saturday and just move on, because we’ve got another good football team on Saturday.”
With wins over Duke and Wake Forest (and North Carolina A&T as a bonus) the Tar Heels are one win away from the unofficial state championship, and face the only other team with a legitimate claim on the title. Which means they would have something to play for Saturday even if it weren’t N.C. State, a team some Tar Heels now consider their biggest rival.
“I’d put it up there higher than Duke in football,” linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said.
Last year’s 35-7 loss in Chapel Hill has something to do with that. The Wolfpack went into the weekend talking – defensive back Hakim Jones called Williams soft – and backed it up on the field on Saturday.
N.C. State even kept talking after it was over, coach Dave Doeren going on an extended postgame rant that covered run-ins with North Carolina fans at the dry cleaners, their fashion choices and staking a claim for N.C. State as the “blue-collar” and “hand in the dirt” school, with the obvious implication that North Carolina was not.
“You win the game, you can say whatever you want,” Doeren said Monday. “That’s what a rivalry game is.”
However Fedora really feels about those comments, and others by N.C. State, the UNC coach would not be drawn in on the subject.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Fedora said when asked if N.C. State’s rhetoric still rankled.
“It’s kind of a yes-or-no-question,” he was told at Monday’s news conference.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Fedora insisted.
For his part, Williams said N.C. State was doing a “tremendous job” this season and he put last season’s game behind him, not only the result but what was said.
“You move on,” Williams said. “That was the 2014 team and we’re the 2015 team. I’m excited. I’m a new person and I’m excited to get to play them.”
Fedora was willing to wax poetic about the rivalry itself, noting his interactions with N.C. State fans in public have never devolved into a “negative situation” and that he enjoys them as part of the rivalry.
All of which feeds into Saturday being tremendously meaningful for a team that already achieved its first and primary goal, winning the Coastal Division. The “state title” remains up for grabs, and while they may still be sticking to their original mantra, the finish line is unquestionably moving forward for the Tar Heels.
“We’re not done,” Fedora said. “I won’t sit back and look back until it’s over with. I told them earlier in the week, we’ve come too far to only get this far.”
N.C. State stands in their way. Then Clemson. Then an uncertain path forward for the Tar Heels, but one that unavoidably has to go through Raleigh first.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock