Twenty-five years ago, the Tar Heels were underdogs to the vaunted program of USC when they traveled to Anaheim to open the 1993 season in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic. It was hardly a contest as the Carolina offense behind QB Jason Stanicek and an opportunistic defense hammered the Trojans 31-9.
The win for the Tar Heels was about respect.
“In the South, where there's so much football tradition, we have trouble getting mentioned with the traditional powers,” Coach Mack Brown said. “We wanted to get some national coverage, playing a school of USC's stature. Ten to 12 years down the road, we hope to mentioned with these other traditional powers.”
That actually happened within five years as the Tar Heels finished in the nation's top 10 in 1996 and '97. Now, a quarter of a century later, Carolina returns to the West Coast to open its 2018 season against the California Bears. Kickoff is 1 p.m. Pacific in Berkeley.
The team is flying out a day earlier than normal to acclimate itself to the time difference and regroup after what is supposed to be a five hour, 30 minute flight.
“I like the idea of being away and opening on the road,” Tar Heel defensive coordinator John Papuchis says. “We'll get our guys in a sterile environment, away from any distractions. We'll have their undivided attention.”
“We're ready to play someone else,” adds offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic. “We're ready to get this thing started. After what we went through last year, everyone's anxious to show that wasn't what we're all about. We put too much time and effort as a staff and team to go 3-9. I think everyone here has a chip on their shoulder.”
Carolina is far more settled on both offense and defense than it was a year ago. There are veterans across the board mixed with a sprinkling of newcomers—i.e. tailbacks Antonio Williams and Javonte Williams, receiver Dyami Brown and safety Trey Morrison.
Papuchis remembers a team meeting last August when he asked players to stand who had limited or no experience going into the 2017 season.
“Almost everyone in the room stood up,” he says. “You kind of went, ‘Wow, I knew we were young, I didn't really know just how young.' We're much more settled on both sides of the ball this year.”