UNC will qualify for bowl with win over ODU
North Carolina is on the verge of completing a remarkable comeback.
The Tar Heels (5-5) can turn their miserable start into bowl eligibility Saturday with a nonconference victory over Old Dominion (8-3).
Coach Larry Fedora says his team didn't worry when it faced a 1-5 start that came against one of the nation's toughest early-season schedules.
"Our staff did a great job of just keeping their nose down, kept working, nobody panicked and they were able to show the kids that there's no reason to panic," Fedora said. "We're close. We just have to make this play or we have to do this or we have to do that.
"The kids kept believing," he added. "They kept working extremely hard. They had great attitudes."
The Tar Heels have reeled off four straight wins on the strength of a defense that has forced more turnovers and an offense that has continued to click despite a season-ending injury to senior quarterback Bryn Renner.
Now they're on the brink of returning to the postseason after an NCAA-mandated one-year absence.
"I saw this turnaround coming five weeks ago," Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder said.
Marquise Williams will make his third start in place of Renner, whose college career is over following surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. Williams has led the team in rushing in four of UNC's last six games, and ran for 79 yards in last week's wild win at Pittsburgh.
Now he faces an Old Dominion team that is transitioning to the FBS, has also won four straight and has faced two ACC schools (Maryland and Pitt) as well as a future Conference USA rival that already beat the Tar Heels — East Carolina.
Those three teams combined to give the Monarchs all of their losses, though they kept it relatively tight against the Panthers before falling 35-24.
"I feel like we have better knowledge of what we're doing" against FBS schools, Wilder said. "I feel like we've gained confidence overall and for the program, particularly coming out of that Pitt game.
"My concern is physically we don't match up versus this team. We don't match up in the interior line. That's a major concern and that's where the game starts."
Five things to know about Old Dominion's first visit to UNC:
SWITZER'S LAND: Few players are as hot as North Carolina's Ryan Switzer. The freshman has accounted for five touchdowns during the winning streak — including a pair of punt returns for scores against Pitt. His 61-yard TD return with 4:46 left broke a 27-all tie. Fedora says Switzer "really believes he's going to make guys miss" and that "when he does that, anything can happen."
HEINICKE CAUSING HEADACHES: The Tar Heels are rightfully concerned about slowing down Old Dominion QB Taylor Heinicke. Last year's Walter Payton Award winner as the top player in the FCS is leading an offense that averages 44.4 points and 378 yards passing. Fedora says Heinicke caught his eye when he watched the Monarchs on film against ECU and Pitt and "he's just a playmaker."
YOUTH MOVEMENT: North Carolina could be a handful in the coming years because the Tar Heels have 36 touchdowns this season — and 28 of them have been scored by freshmen or sophomores. WR Bug Howard and Switzer each have scored four, and the team's last 12 TDs have come from either freshmen or sophomores.
STREAKING TAR HEELS: In addition to bowl eligibility, a North Carolina victory would give the Tar Heels their first five-game winning streak since 2001. That run started with a 41-9 rout of then-No. 6 Florida State and included wins against N.C. State, Virginia, East Carolina and Clemson.
COMING TO C-USA: This is Old Dominion's last game before it officially begins Conference USA play in 2014. North Carolina is the Monarchs' fifth FBS opponent and they're 1-3 against them with a 59-38 rout of Idaho two weeks ago their first victory against a team from college football's top tier.