And just as they did two weeks ago in their takedown of N.C. State, the Tar Heels (5-2, 5-2 ACC) dominated. They scored 21 points in the first quarter while giving up none, en route to a 56-24 blowout win over their crosstown rivals, Duke (2-6, 1-6 ACC.)
"This is a very important game for the University of North Carolina", head coach Mack Brown said following the game.
He was talking about the rivalry, and the Victory Bell, which UNC will hold onto for yet another year. But he may as well have been talking about the state of the program.
Since the moment sophomore quarterback Sam Howell was named ACC Freshman of the Year last year, the expectations for the North Carolina football program have been raised. North Carolina was supposed to be a program that won when it was supposed to, fought hard when it wasn't and was among the dark horse candidates for a College Football Playoffs berth.
The year has proven that simply isn't North Carolina. Those losses to unranked Florida State and Virginia earlier in the season — regardless of whether Brown insists those teams were better on the field than their record — will dull some of the shine around UNC, no matter what happens.
Even against Duke, the penalties that have been a problem in every game reared their head once again. UNC was called for six penalties for 80 yards, including two illegal hands to the face calls, two roughing the passer calls and an illegal face mask.
But in the meantime, the Tar Heels proved yet again that even though they can very much be knocked down, they're good enough to get back up and destroy their next opponent.
"The sense of what's important throughout the week because we're coming to face a rival team, that's something everyone took seriously throughout the week," junior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. "We buried Virginia on Sunday and I think we did a good job of putting it away on Sunday and getting ready for Duke."
The Tar Heels spoke openly about allowing too many mistakes to bury them against Virginia. And while there were still too many penalties for any team to be comfortable with, there was no first-quarter punch this game to knock the Tar Heels back onto their, well, heels.
"I think we were more prepared, it seemed like we were more focused going into the game and we showed that today," said junior running back Javonte Williams, career-high four touchdowns, three rushing and one receiving, on his way to once again leading the country in total touchdowns scored with 17.
There are four games left in the regular season and, barring the tacked-on game on Dec. 11 against Western Carolina, this will likely be the most challenging stretch of play for the Tar Heels. Wake Forest has won four games in a row going into next Saturday's matchup, and both Notre Dame and Miami sit above UNC in the ACC standings.
It won't be this easy for North Carolina moving forward. The challenge is to prove that this team can learn why, for whatever reason, it allowed inferior teams to get the upset, and fix those issues permanently.
The Tar Heels may be ranked next week, but they will not be given the benefit of the doubt anymore — not even after Saturday's beatdown. If they want the respect and the accolades, they need to prove that yes, they really are this good.
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