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September 15, 2011

Time to get serious

If Carolina can cease to give the ball to its opponent, there is no reason to believe the Tar Heels will not be an especially difficult team for Virginia to defeat on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

The game is set to kick off at 3:30 p.m.

UNC defeated Rutgers last Saturday 24-22 despite turning the ball over five times. Other than those serious errors, the Tar Heels showed they have talent and can execute. Without that kind of performance they never could have overcome the five turnovers.

"I think if we don't turn the ball over, I don't know if the game is that close -- just being honest, if we don't self-inflict the wounds on ourselves," interim head coach Everett Withers said. "We stopped ourselves I think more than Rutgers stopped us.

"That's one of the points that we've gone through this week is it's about us taking care of our business."

Virginia has improved immensely from the team UNC crushed 44-10 in Charlottesville, Va., last season. The Cavaliers defeated William & Mary and Indiana in Bloomington, Ind., to start this season 2-0.

UNC is 2-0 as well after beating James Madison and Rutgers. This week will be a whole different atmosphere, though. The Carolina-Virginia rivalry is the fifth oldest in the nation and the oldest in the South.

Since the Cavaliers made football a priority at the start of the 1980s, this has been a close, intense game most years. In fact, the Tar Heels have not beaten Virginia in back-to-back years since 1981-82, when George Welsh was just getting started as the head coach who would pull Virginia from the depths in football and make it a consistent winner.

The Tar Heels defeated Virginia 27-14 in '82, Welsh's first season there. That team went 2-9, but the close nature of the game against Carolina in Chapel Hill foreshadowed the future. Virginia would defeat the Tar Heels in Charlottesville the next season and then not lose at home to UNC again until last season, a streak that included a come-from-behind 20-17 victory against one of the Tar Heels' finest teams ever in 1996.

That crushing defeat knocked UNC out of a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

Withers understands the rivalry. He's not downplaying it. This is the first conference game.

"We consider this our opener," Withers said.

The fact is Carolina could not ask for a better scenario. This is the third straight home game. Given the time of the kickoff and the cooler weather predicted for Saturday, there is a reasonable chance more fans will attend than did against Rutgers.

This game holds special importance for recruiting. From the days of Coach Bill Dooley, the best Carolina teams had elite players from the state of Virginia on the roster, players such as Mike Voight, Amos Lawrence, Lawrence Taylor, Dwight Hollier, Corey Holliday,Dre' Bly and Ronald Curry are a few of the names of players who came south to Chapel Hill to make a name for themselves.

Today is no different. Starting quarterback Bryn Renner is from Virginia, and he certainly appears to be on his way to a special career at UNC.

In his first two games he has thrown four interceptions, but he has also shown exceptional footwork in the pocket and an uncanny accuracy outside of those four picks. He's completed 43 of 51 (.843) in his opening two games to go with three touchdowns.

"He is a very talented, young freshman quarterback," Withers said. "I think he's going to be outstanding, and I think he'll continue to get better each week. I have all the confidence in the world that he will."

Renner is not the only talented player from Virginia, either. Virginians and freshmen Tim Scott (cornerback), Travis Hughes (linebacker) and Landon Turner (offensive lineman) have great promise.

So this game brings with it the usual importance that any Carolina-Virginia game does. Welsh built his program by dominating the Big Four from North Carolina and stopping the flow of players headed out of state.

Withers and his staff would obviously like to continue getting their share away from Virginia and Virginia Tech.

When he discussed this game, he was as straightforward and blunt about it as he has been with so many things since he was named interim head coach.

"We just put a game plan in for Virginia, to stop them offensively, defensively, the kicking game, not a whole lot of adjustments -- just do what we do," Withers said.

If doing what the Tar Heels do includes not turning the ball over and forcing a few from Virginia, then that game plan should work just fine.


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