Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora wrapped up pre-holiday bowl practice Thursday in Chapel Hill by telling his players to be smart on their three-day break before the Sun Bowl and return to Chapel Hill on Sunday afternoon mentally prepared to focus on one goal the rest of the week: Win the bowl game.
“I liked our energy and focus this week,” Fedora told his players. “Good job. Every day, we got a little better. One of our goals since August has been to win our last game. That’s right there in front of us.”
Carolina, 8-4, faces Stanford, 9-3 and winner of its last five games, in the Hyundai Sun Bowl at 2 p.m. EST Friday in El Paso. It’s Carolina’s fourth trip to the west Texas bowl, having beaten Texas Tech in 1972 and Texas in 1982 and lost to Mississippi State in 1974 and Texas in 1994.
One important personnel issue still hovers over the team and another one was announced on Dec. 22, just before the team broke for Christmas. Junior QB Mitch Trubisky has not decided whether to forego his senior year and enter the NFL Draft, and junior tailback Elijah Hood will not make the trip because of an undisclosed medical problem. But he is expected to return for the 2017 season.
“It’s a blessing to have this type of decision,” says Trubisky, potentially a first-round pick this spring. “I’m not letting it consume me, I’m taking it day by day. Right now I’m focused on the bowl game. After the bowl game, we’ll go from there.”
Defensive tackle Nazair Jones has decided to enter the draft this spring but said the thought had not crossed his mind to not play in the game—a decision that was made by Stanford’s outstanding running back, Christian McCaffery.
“No, I’m cherishing these last moments with these guys, we’ve been through a lot,” Jones said. “Personally, I would not pass up the opportunity to play in a bowl game.”
Ironically in McCaffery’s absence, the Cardinal will field a player from the Tar Heels’ very own backyard: Bryce Love, a 2015 recruit from Wake Forest. Love came down to Carolina and Stanford before deciding to head west in February 2015. Love rushed for 664 yards and an average of 7.4 yards a carry.
“Bryce has great speed and quickness, he can make you miss,” Fedora says. “He’s a complete player. Stanford’s going to do what they do and they’re not going to change anything because McCaffery’s not playing. We will have to be aware of Bryce on every snap.”
The Tar Heels have a sour taste in their mouths after a November that included losses to their two in-state rivals, Duke and N.C. State. Asked for a brief synopsis of the big-picture view of the 2016, Fedora was quick to point to the offense, which scored only 27 points against Duke and 21 versus N.C. State—below their water mark of 33 points a game for the entire year and 41 points in 2015.
“I thought we under-achieved offensively, we did not meet our expectations,” Fedora says. “That was a big part of why we were not successful the last month of season. We’ve got high expectations on offense, and we did not perform like we normally do A lot of that was simply not making ordinary plays, the plays we normally make. That’s been something we’ve looked at focused during bowl preparations.”