It’s been four years since Brian Anderson sat in Kenan Stadium as a high school recruit, watching North Carolina’s 66-31 shellacking of Duke and realizing, for the first time, he wanted to be a Tar Heel.
UNC’s starting center reflected on that game Tuesday, smiling as he recalled the first-play flea-flicker touchdown from Marquise Williams to Ryan Switzer, the raucous crowd and the postgame celebration with the Victory Bell in tow. But Anderson ended his thought with a more honest admission.
“That was just a crazy atmosphere and something that was awesome for me to experience,” he said. “I’m hoping to experience that myself and hopefully give the seniors that opportunity, too.”
The Tar Heels’ Saturday afternoon tilt with the Blue Devils (4-3, 2-2 ACC) is already heavy on dramatics, what with the 106th iteration of a historic rivalry, head coach Mack Brown one win away from recording the most in school history and both teams scrapping for position in the ACC’s once-again wacky Coastal Division.
But Duke’s three-game winning streak against UNC, its first since 1987-89, has added an extra layer. Not since the Eisenhower administration of the mid-1950s has a North Carolina senior class graduated winless against its biggest rival.
Yet the Tar Heels (3-4, 2-2 ACC) enter homecoming weekend with that very possibility becoming reality.
UNC has been preaching a 24-hour rule this season: soak in the joy of a victory or the frustration of a loss for a day, and then it’s back to work. Senior linebacker Allen Cater said he’s applied that same logic to his career in full — focus on this season, rather than the previous three — but agreed the history isn't lost on him.
“Duke is what, 25, 30 minutes up the road?” he said. “We see these people every day. This game Saturday is going to have a huge impact for the rest of the season and, for me, the rest of my career.”
North Carolina has a handful of senior starters and contributors that are 0-3 against Duke in their careers, including Cater, linebacker Dominique Ross, safety Myles Dorn and lineman Jason Strowbridge on defense. On offense, it’s left tackle Charlie Heck, plus tight ends Carl Tucker and Jake Bargas. Aaron Crawford, a graduate defensive lineman, also hasn’t played in a win.
“A lot of things we do are for the seniors,” Anderson, a redshirt sophomore, said. “It’s their last ride.”
The group has experienced a serious ebb and flow here in Chapel Hill: a promising, but eventually derailed 8-5 year, two seasons heavy on devastating fourth-quarter losses, and now this intriguing 2019 campaign. For that reason, younger players said Tuesday, it’s been even easier to rally around the seniors.
“They really deserve to win this game on Saturday,” first-year quarterback Sam Howell said. “And this university deserves to win it. I think the bell's been gone for too long, so we need to bring it back.”
Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel has played his part by pushing teammates for “a little more extra time” in preparation this week. Maybe that’s a few extra reps in the weight room, or a few extra plays in the film room, or staying after practice to catch 10 more balls.
“If everybody on the team puts in 15, maybe 20 more minutes a day, every single day throughout this week, I don't think we'll be disappointed on Saturday,” Gemmel said.
Such a mantra fits well, given the razor-thin margins of the Tar Heels’ last three losses to the Blue Devils. In 2016, Duke upset No. 15 UNC, 28-27, in Durham. In 2017, North Carolina lost 27-17 after Chazz Surratt, then a quarterback, threw a pick-six with 4:01 left in the fourth quarter.
And last season, the Tar Heels racked up almost 400 total yards of offense in the first half before fizzling out in the second in a 42-35 loss on the road — Larry Fedora’s penultimate game as head coach.
Saturday’s game against the Blue Devils, players said, is a chance to right this ship: for upperclassmen, underclassmen and their fan base alike.
“We haven't talked about it much, but we know we've got to get it done,” Ross said. “We can't let them sweep us.”
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