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Going into Saturday’s game against Western Carolina, Larry Fedora-coached North Carolina teams had previously dominated FCS competition to a 6–0 record by an average of 53.4 to 14.6 points per game, and the Tar Heels obviously scheduled the Catamounts to serve as a warm-up in advance of this week’s tilt with rival North Carolina State.
This matchup, however, was different from previous years in that UNC limped into the game with near-FCS roster numbers due to injuries, while WCU has been good enough in 2017 to earn a bid to the FCS playoffs.
No matter. The Tar Heels dispatched the Catamounts with ease, racing out to a 42–7 lead at the half on the way to a 65–10 final for their second straight win after starting the season 1–8.
“I think we have created some momentum,” Fedora said afterwards, “I think our guys this month have played well, and we want to finish it off the right way.”
ELLIOTT STARTS AGAIN
Nathan Elliott got the start at quarterback once again and threw for 240 yards and four TDs, but the sophomore was critical of his own performance in postgame interviews.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really pleased with what I did today,” Elliott said. “I think there were some little mistakes that I really have to fix.”
Better accuracy on vertical, downfield throws has to be at the top of the list, as Elliott struggled to locate his deeper throws, most notably on a slant-and-go to Austin Proehl, who was at least five yards behind the defense but had to turn back and make a contested catch.
POSITIVE INJURY NEWS
For what seems like the first time all season, the week brought good news on the injury front, as Proehl, who had previously been declared out for the season after breaking his collarbone on Sept. 23 against Duke, returned to action against WCU. Carolina’s top receiver prior to the injury, Proehl had three catches for 52 yards.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt also made his first appearance since getting knocked out of the Miami game, looking healthier than he has in over a month on a 59-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter.
On a less positive note, linebackers Cole Holcomb and Cason Collins each departed early with injuries, but Fedora announced in his Monday press conference that both are expected to play against NC State.
KEY STATS FOR NCSU GAME
The kicking game should receive extra attention from both sides coming into this game, as the game very well could be decided on special teams. UNC’s Anthony Ratliff-Williams, averaging 27.87 yards per kick return (12th nationally) with two touchdowns on the year, is surely looking forward to facing NCSU’s kick coverage unit, which ranks 114th nationally in efficiency.
By contrast, the matchup between UNC’s excellent punt unit (21st nationally) and NCSU punt return unit is a strength-on-strength matchup, as NCSU’s Nyheim Hines’ 14.1 yards per return would rank third nationally if he were not one short of the required number of returns to be ranked.
For Carolina to upset the Wolfpack, the Tar Heels will have to stop the run better than they did last year, when N.C. State rushed for 259 yards on 53 carries (4.89 yards per carry). Comparing last year’s numbers (vs. FBS) to this year’s stats presents an intriguing picture:
Yards Per Carry National Rank
2016 NCSU Offense 4.32 67
2016 UNC Defense 4.47 63
2017 NCSU Offense 3.96 91
2017 UNC Defense 4.7 89
JOHNSON OUT, BERRY BACK
Carolina basketball also had an eventful week with both bad and good news. First, the negative: Starting wing Cameron Johnson had surgery for a torn meniscus and is expected to miss 4–6 weeks, returning just in time for the start of ACC play. The positive: the return of Joel Berry II from a broken hand.
Berry scored seven points (missing his final 10 shots) in Carolina’s 91–83 win over Bucknell. Freshman Sterling Manley recorded his first double-double (in just 17 minutes) with 16 points and 13 rebounds.