UNC, Wake Forest must put openers aside

North Carolina and Wake Forest played FCS teams last weekend that really aren’t too far apart in terms of talent and expectations. But the difference in what the Tar Heels did to Elon and the Demon Deacons did to Liberty was significant.

But that means nothing heading into this weekend’s matchup pitting the longtime rivals in Winston-Salem.

UNC smashed Elon 62-0 while Wake escaped Liberty 20-17. But the emotional investment Carolina put into that game, given what the program had been through over the last two years with an NCAA investigation and eventual punishment, and that it has a new coaching staff, probably helped account for the lopsidedness of the game.

Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels made tearing apart Elon a point of emphasis, and they did just that. But the baby blues have put that game behind them and the focus now is, well, themselves. Regardless of the opponent, Fedora wants his new team to continue working to learn its new systems on both sides of the ball.

“It’s the next opportunity for us, that’s the culture we’re trying to establish,” Fedora said about this week’s game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, when you play them, where you play them, it’s just the next opportunity and we need to get our guys prepared to play.”

Fedora said his team made numerous small mistakes in the pummeling of the Phoenix, and it stands to reason that the Demon Deacons will be a much more difficult opponent. Wake has a talented quarterback in third-year starter Tanner Price, fine skill personnel, some playmakers on defense, and one of the most respected coaches in the nation in Jim Grobe.

And it’s a conference game in Week 2 of the Fedora regime. Make no mistake, plenty can go wrong for the Heels.  

“It’s on the schedule and we don’t have any choice in the matter,” Fedora said, giving the impression he’d rather not play an ACC game just yet. “Some teams played conference games their first week. Whether you like it or not, it is what it is and there is going to be a winner and a loser. It will still count at the end of the season, so you might as well not worry about it.”

Grobe’s attention is squarely on the opponent. But at least the Wake staff has a game film of UNC to watch. Liberty also had a new staff, headed by former Kansas coach Turner Gill and defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, a former head coach at UNC.

“It was hard for us against Liberty this past weekend,” Grobe said. “We weren’t real sure what we were going to see from Turner and his coaching staff. We’ve got some of the same issues (with UNC). (They give you) a different look defensively than we’re used to, and offensively they give you the up-tempo stuff which is real difficult since it forces your defenders to try and line up a play in a hurry. They’ve got one of the more talented teams in the country.”

Wake was once the ACC team that was a preparation nightmare because of the misdirection ground game and quirky passing attack Grobe employed. But with Price under center, Wake is more of a spread, drop-back passing team.

The Deacs will still toss a lot of wrinkles UNC’s way, especially in how they use wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who is one of the best players in the ACC and more unique ones in the nation. He threw two touchdown passes a year ago. He runs the ball from scrimmage and even returned a punt for a score last fall.

Grobe, who is generally as good at identifying problems and fixing them as any head coach in the ACC, doesn’t want to give his opponent any edge, so he’s not going to say a whole lot. Yet, given UNC’s potential and that his club nearly lost to an FCS team, his words may not need mincing.

“I think we’re really a team in transition right now,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of players from last year’s team, and I’ve told people over and over again that we’ve got a lot of talent on this football team. They’re just young guys, it’s not happening overnight. We’ve got to develop them in a hurry to be competitive this weekend.”

It wouldn’t be unlike either program, given their recent histories, to swap spot for three hours Saturday. A Wake win should surprise nobody, and that’s why this is theoretically a much better matchup than paper suggests.