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Friday February 3rd

UNC football needs to focus on consistency to close out last five games of regular season

UNC sophomore running back, Elijah Green (21), celebrates his second touchdown of the night in Wallace Wade Stadium on Oct. 15, 2022, in UNC’s faceoff against Duke. UNC won 38-35.
Buy Photos UNC sophomore running back, Elijah Green (21), celebrates his second touchdown of the night in Wallace Wade Stadium on Oct. 15, 2022, in UNC’s faceoff against Duke. UNC won 38-35.

Sophomore Elijah Green, who has been vying for the position of starting running back since suffering a thumb injury in the season-opening game against FAMU, has kept his father’s advice in mind.

“Persistence, consistence, dedication, perseverance and control,” Green said. “Those are the five words that I live off of.” 

This advice doesn’t just apply to Green. Amid mounting expectations, these five words are what the UNC football team needs to focus on in its last five games of the regular season.  

This week, the Tar Heels achieved a new season milestone – a No. 21 ranking in the Associated Press poll. Their top-25 status comes after a hard-fought win against rival Duke, which UNC claimed by a score of 38-35 thanks to a Drake Maye connection to senior wide receiver Antoine Green with 16 seconds remaining in the game.

Junior linebacker Cedric Gray and the rest of the team don’t put much stock in rankings after UNC’s rocky history with them. 

UNC has been down this road before, but hasn’t always finished with the best results. During the 2020-2021 season, the team made it to its first Orange Bowl, where the Tar Heels lost  41-27 to Texas A&M. The game highlighted unpredictable performances from the defense – a problem the team continues to have two seasons later. 

The Tar Heels started the following season with a high ranking, but they couldn't hold onto it, ultimately resulting in a 6-7 record and a loss to South Carolina in the Mayo Bowl. 

“It’s nice to have all these accolades coming in for us midway through the season,” Gray said. “But we all understand that there’s a bigger picture, a bigger goal to accomplish down the road.” 

Right before Maye’s last drive against Duke, junior wide receiver Josh Downs voiced trust in his teammate, telling him he wouldn’t want anyone else holding the ball. Much like Gray said he is reflecting on North Carolina's last two seasons, Downs’ speech before UNC’s final drive was a lesson in its own right.

Downs has added more sideline encouragement this year, and said the change came from realizing that less experienced teammates looked up to him as an older player. Downs also said he is encouraging the team to not lose sight of its goals because of the rankings. 

Throughout his career, head coach Mack Brown has remained winless against the Panthers. The main focus for UNC's upcoming game with Pittsburgh is to “take it one week at a time” — a mindset repeated both by Downs and Brown.

The Tar Heels are specifically keeping an eye on Pittsburgh junior running back Israel Abanikanda, who currently leads the country in all-purpose yards per game and is in the running for ACC Player of the Year. Gray praised his speed and footwork, especially against Virginia Tech, and noted he was instrumental in the Panthers’ many outside zone plays. Slowing him down is, according to Gray, crucial for a UNC victory. 

All eyes will be on UNC's defense, which has struggled with consistency, especially in stopping explosive plays. The defense had some standout moments last game, with an interception by first-year defensive back Will Hardy that sealed UNC’s victory. 

However, the defense has had to adjust since, notably with the news that graduate Raymond Vohasek would be out for the rest of his final season at UNC. 

“It’s still a big role to fill, especially filling Ray’s shoes,” junior lineman Kevin Hester Jr. said. 

For him and all the Tar Heels, the highs and lows off the field won’t stop them from focusing on the task at hand. 

“I feel like I was ready to be next man up, which I am,” Hester Jr. said. “Hope I’m performing that way,” 

@hamsinisiva3

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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