No. 24 UNC football gathers momentum heading into Senior Day matchup with rival Duke

What did a 59-7 win over Campbell do for North Carolina?

It got the Tar Heels back in the AP Top 25. It picked up team morale, UNC coach Mack Brown said Monday, allowing many to play, and play well.

It also could be just what was needed — not a complete breather, but a pleasing, less-than-stressful victory — to get the No. 24 Heels in the right mood and mindset for what’s to come.

Namely: Duke, Clemson and N.C. State.

One can almost hear Brown gritting his teeth. Again.

“We’ve got the three most emotional games in a row that I’ve ever coached in,” Brown said. “So we didn’t get any favors with our schedule. We’re going to have to be really tough mentally and physically to be able to handle this three-game stretch.”

The Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2 ACC) moved to No. 24 in the AP poll after the complete-game win over Campbell.. Omarion Hampton became a 1,000-yard rusher, the defense looked sharper, and there were smiles all around at the end.

“I’m proud of the guys. They took a game we should dominate and they dominated it,” Brown said.

With two ACC losses, UNC also believes if it can win out, it still has a chance to face Florida State in the 2023 ACC Championship game. Louisville, 5-1 in the ACC, would need to stumble, but that could happen.

The Cardinals host Virginia this week. An easy game at home? Ask Carolina.

But first things first. Duke (6-3, 3-2) won’t have versatile Riley Leonard at quarterback, but will come into Kenan Stadium with a strong running game. If UNC’s offensive motto is “Run the (Darn) Ball,” the goal could be “Stop the (Darn) Run” this week.

It’s expected Grayson Loftis, a true freshman, again will be the Blue Devils’ starter at quarterback. With backup Henry Belin IV slowed by an upper-body injury and unable to play, Loftis took over at QB1 and played effectively enough against Wake Forest to help the Devils to a 24-21 win and become bowl eligible.

North Carolina’s Omarion Hampton (28) breaks open for a 16-yard run in the third quarter against Campbell on Saturday, November 4. 2023 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett/
North Carolina’s Omarion Hampton (28) breaks open for a 16-yard run in the third quarter against Campbell on Saturday, November 4. 2023 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett/

“What helps (Loftis) is he has an offensive line that is so experienced,” UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said Monday. “Those guys have averaged over 30 starts per guy. Their running game in most games other than Louisville … they’re running for around 200 yards a game and against really good defenses.

“So obviously that helps him as a young guy. They went into that game knowing it was his first start and how were they going to win the game? They did it by running the football and not putting him in harm’s way.”

Loftis completed just 7 of 19 passes for 86 yards but had a 29-yard scoring pass to Jordan Moore in the fourth quarter to tie the score 21-21. Duke rushed for 181 yards as Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore combined for 152 on 29 carries.

“Their tailbacks are really good. They’re physical, they’re fast,” Chizik said. “They do a great job after the first contact. Running the ball, taking the shots down field, we fully expect that. They’ve got some guys who can go.”

Duke’s defense most folks already know about. It’s experienced and it’s tough. That figures to be a staple of Mike Elko’s football teams at Duke.

The Devils lead the ACC in scoring defense (15.7 points a game) and red-zone defense. They’ll give UNC quarterback Drake Maye different looks and will try to pressure him.

Senior Day at UNC

It will be Senior Day at UNC, with everything that comes with that. Brown said Maye, expected to enter the 2024 NFL Draft, could take part in the pregame ceremonies Saturday with those playing their final game at Kenan — if they do elect to leave.

“You’ll have seniors who don’t know if they’ll be back or not, so they’ll go to Senior Day,” Brown said. “Then they’ll come back. Then you have the NFL factor, the transfer portal.”

Senior Days can be unpredictable once the game begins. UNC lost it last year to N.C. State. The Wolfpack lost last year to Boston College on its Senior Day.

“They’re so emotional,” Brown said. “I always say, ‘If you’re going to cry, cry after the game. Don’t cry before the game. I need you playing.’

“Cry after a win. Don’t be crying and then lose.”