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September 1, 2012

Sammy: UNC gets just what it needs

CHAPEL HILL - OK. So it wasn't exactly Alabama or Southern Cal, or even a middle of the road Atlantic Coast Conference team North Carolina routed Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

Nobody, including the Tar Heels themselves, were crowing after a 62-0 shellacking of Football Championship Subdivision foe Elon. The players and coaches realize routing a mediocre FCS team like the Phoenix doesn't prove much. It's what they're supposed to do.

But it sure felt good for a UNC team hoping to please its new head coach and hopefully setting the stage for successful regular season.

The regular season is entirely the Tar Heels' focus right now because that's all they have to play for in the first year under coach Larry Fedora. Due to penalties handed down by the NCAA for major rules violations, UNC is banned from post-season activity this season.

So the Tar Heels have vowed to treat every Saturday like it's a bowl game this season, and they certainly lived up to that promise against Elon.

They hit the Phoenix with a barrage of big offensive plays early - the majority provided by sophomore running back Giovani Bernard - and never gave a hint of letting up. Right down to the second- and third-team units, UNC kept its intensity high and the big plays coming.

Bernard, who became the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997 last season, gave a virtuoso performance by scoring touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a punt return in the first half. He headed to the sidelines shortly after breaking a brilliant 70-yard punt return for a score with what was described by a radio sideline reporter as "soreness in his knee.''

Chances are Bernard was just exhausted after accumulating 204 all-purpose yards in less than a half on a balmy, bright afternoon at Kenan.

"You go into a game as a new head coach in your first game and you want to make minimal mistakes,'' Fedora said. "Other than turning the ball over twice, I thought our guys responded very well from the beginning of the game and all the way through.''


FEDORA MOVED TO BACKGROUND


The performance on the field by North Carolina was so entertaining that it essentially overshadowed Fedora's debut.

Hired last December to lead the program out of the NCAA difficulties, the fiery Texan was in constant motion exhorting his team from the sidelines.

But his first game with the Tar Heels was clearly more about the team than Fedora himself. Only a couple of TV cameramen bothered to get shots of Fedora as he stood alone at midfield, hands on hips watching his team warm up. The cameras did converge on him after the game as he shook hands with Elon's Jason Swepson. But even that lasted only a few seconds.

It was a sharp contrast from the spectacle that occurred when Butch Davis coached his first game at UNC in 2007, which also came against an FCS foe, James Madison. Photographers and TV cameras documented Davis' every move before, during and after the 37-14 victory.

Tar Heel fans packed Kenan Stadium on that afternoon in support of the big-time hire they thought would carry UNC to college football's promised land.

Maybe the the fans don't have the same faith in Fedora yet. Others are probably still upset with the manner in which Davis was fired - eight days before the start of preseason practice in 2011.

Still, more could be disillusioned by the ongoing academic scandal that has brought negative publicity on the school and football program.

But for whatever reason, they didn't show up in force Saturday, leaving Kenan looking half empty and creating perhaps the only disappointing aspect to day.


WINNING BACK SUPPORT


Re-establishing the rapport and support with the UNC fans may be as important as any game the Tar Heels play this season.

Certainly, Fedora's upbeat, intense personality is an asset toward that goal. He is the most personable Tar Heel coach since Mack Brown patrolled the sidelines at Kenan Stadium. But like Brown, Fedora will need time to truly endear himself to the UNC faithful.

The team itself has certainly embraced their coach and his philosophies, and they appear to be a group that will be exciting to watch, win, lose or draw.

More performances like Saturday's will also help. But until they come against bigger, tougher and better opponents, like Wake Forest, who the Tar Heels face next Saturday in their ACC opener.

Fedora won't truly know how good his team can be until they compete against a team of that caliber.

"There wasn't much adversity for us in that game,'' Fedora said. "Until we have to face some adversity it's hard to find out who you really are.''

Staff writer Sammy Batten can be reached at battens@fayobserver.com or 486-3534.



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