Thursday evening's game at Virginia - in prime time on ESPN - represents Carolina football's one shot at the television spotlight in 2012. With the one-year postseason ban and a home date with 4-6 Maryland rounding out the regular season, Thursday's game gives Larry Fedora's Tar Heels their best opportunity to command national attention.
"We talk about earning respect all the time, and this is part of it," Fedora said on Monday. "You get an opportunity to go on national TV, on the road, against a team who has got a lot of confidence right now," he said of the Cavaliers. "They've won against two good teams, so it'll be a good challenge for us."
Bringing that challenge is Mike London's team. The 4-6 Virginia Cavaliers have won two straight and will need wins at home against the Tar Heels and at Virginia Tech next weekend to gain bowl eligibility. Carolina has had trouble in Charlottesville - the 2010 win at Scott Stadium snapped a streak of 14 straight losses at Virginia, dating back to 1981. "That was a big step for us as a program," quarterback Bryn Renner said this week. Renner was on the sideline as T.J. Yates's backup. "I remember the game pretty well. We played well. Dwight (Jones) scored on the first play of the game, I remember that. It's good to get off to a good start."
A Virginia native and the son of Virginia Tech alumni, Renner is well aware of the stakes Thursday and recognizes the opportunity that lay in front of he and his team. "It's going to be a big-time game on ESPN, and we know what, and we've been looking forward to this game for a while now. I think if we just come out and get some momentum early and move the ball methodically, then we'll be OK."
That will be important, as Carolina looks to put away any lingering after-effects from last week's 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech, the highest-scoring game in ACC history. Carolina has a quick turnaround from Saturday and goes from facing an unorthodox spread option attack to a more traditional offense. "None of that's going to carry over to this week, and we don't have time to mess with it now," Fedora said of Georgia Tech. "You don't have time to think about last week. That one's gone, and you've got to move on."
Tar Heel tailback Giovani Bernard, who last week became the first Tar Heel in 20 years to post back-to-back seasons with 1,000 rushing yards, said the Tar Heels were anxious to get on the field this week. Traditionally, Monday would be the players' day off, but with the game on Thursday night, they weren't afforded that luxury. "For me, I always want to be on the field. I always want to be out there playing, even on our off-days, I kind of want to do something."
Carolina will have to do something Thursday night to get win number seven and help cap the season on a good note. For one night, all eyes will be on Charlottesville - and the Tar Heels. "It's always a good opportunity to show everybody in the country what we're all about here at North Carolina," Bernard said. "It's another opportunity really to show everybody what I'm capable of, and what we're capable of. It's something that I love. I love playing in front of everybody, and I never take it for granted."Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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