It was a mostly meaningless game on the surface.
The North Carolina football team was in a class of its own on Saturday against the Western Carolina Catamounts. The Tar Heels won 49-26. They outgained WCU 654-433. Eleven different Tar Heels caught a pass. Four Tar Heels ran for at least 45 yards.
It was to be expected given the reality of the talent disparity on the field. Western Carolina is only allowed 65 scholarship players, compared to UNC’s 85. It didn’t look like all 65 of those players made the over four-hour drive east from Cullowee.
Even if UNC entered the game as the best FBS one-win team, WCU was 3-7, losers of seven straight against the Southern Conference. No one expected them to compete.
If anything, the Tar Heels might of been a bit disappointed in their play. The same core from this year’s team beat WCU 65-10 a season ago, and failed to cover -32.5 spread this afternoon. The Catamounts had three takeaways, picking off Nathan Elliott twice and recovering a fumble from Toe Groves. While the defense gave up 300 yards in the air and only forced one turnover.
After losing six straight games of their own, however, Coach Larry Fedora was just happy to be able to celebrate a win in the locker room.
“I’m excited that they are getting to enjoy tonight,” Fedora said. “I’m excited that there is some reward at the end of all of their hard work.”
I’ll confess, I’m not a fan of FBS teams scheduling FCS opponents, particularly this late in the season. The games are rarely close, and while it’s a ton of fun when David beats Goliath, a la Appalachian State beating Michigan in 2007 or NC A&T beating ECU just this season, most of the time that doesn’t happen. For trying to learn something about a team as a reporter, there’s rarely anything new to see when a team plays someone it’s bigger, faster, and stronger than on the field.
I get why teams schedule these games. In a quest for bowl eligibility, a better bowl, or even a Playoff position, an easy win at home is worth a lot of potential revenue, both on the day of the game and down the line. Which is why programs regularly give out six-figure sums to schedule these games. But why should I, or the fans, for that matter, get up and pay attention when the odds are so heavily in the home team’s favor?
I’m happy to say, however, that I was jaded about these type of games. And wrong.
We should care. There’s a lot to see. You just might have to look a little closer.
Yes, the disparity was there, and yes, it made for some mostly meaningless yards and scores in a game that won’t make any difference on one’s perception of the 2018 UNC football team.
But for a handful of Tar Heels today, there was no bigger game.
The backups. The freshmen getting a chance shine in the second half is the most obvious beneficiaries. Building for the future with real game experience you can’t replicated in a practice.
“It was good to see those guys in there and get some extended time,” Fedora said of the defensive line unit specifically. “From the sideline, they looked like they were playing hard. They knew what they were doing and gave great effort.”
Freshmen like tailback Javonte Williams, who didn’t have any FBS scholarship offers this time a year ago. Rushing for three touchdowns today, the first Tar Heel to do that since Elijah Hood against Georgia Tech in 2016.
“I knew I could do it the whole time – I just had to show other people,” Williams said. “That was the hardest part. Being from a small town they don’t usually believe in you as much as some others, but I think I played pretty well today and I am just going to keep getting better.”
Or the walk-ons, the seniors that haven’t gotten as many chances. Players like quarterback Manny Miles, the holder on the field goal unit, subbing in to throw a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. Moving the pocket, rolling left, tossing it up, watching it get tipped and seeing Jake Bargas snag it in the end zone for Miles’ first career touchdown.
“When you're a kid, you dream about playing college football,” Miles said. “And you dream about scoring touchdowns and throwing it and running it. For it all to happen at the end and for your first throw to be a touchdown like that is pretty awesome.”
Miles’ family followed him to the interview room post game. Mom Kathy smiling and filming the massive media scrum her son was in the middle of, which Manny had never experienced until today, on her phone. Sisters Smacker and Macy standing back with her, also with their phones out documenting the scene, until Smacker stepped into the crowd to ask him how his touchdown stood up against other family sports achievements. (The best, Manny said with a laugh).
His dad Les — yes, that Les Miles — smiling to the side, acknowledging that he never scored a touchdown when he played college football (of course not, he said, he was an offensive lineman).
UNC has one game left, a 12:20 tilt with rival NC State next Saturday. A win there would almost completely erase the bad taste the string of close losses has left in mouths of the fans, the players, and the coaches. Another loss, and some people might be getting pink slips on Monday.
But for a single night, not of that mattered. All that mattered were the small moments. Moments of joy. Reminders of why, even when this season hasn’t gone the way they hoped, UNC has kept fighting. Why the game is still fun.
And why we keep coming back.