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DeCock: For Tar Heels, is Charlotte too close for comfort?

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com

A mere 141 miles from the North Carolina campus, Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium would appear, geographically at least, to be a home away from home for the Tar Heels. For some fans across the state, even, it’s easier to get to that stadium than it is Kenan Stadium on any given Saturday.

They have helped account for two of the three largest crowds in the bowl’s history, so as the Tar Heels make their fourth visit to what is now called the Belk Bowl – and was, in various iterations, called the Continental Tire Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl – it’s a little surprising that they’ve yet to win any of the three previous visits.

As the Tar Heels prepare to face Cincinnati on Saturday, the bowl’s most frequent participant is also its least successful, losing to Boston College in 2004, West Virginia in 2008 and Pittsburgh in 2009, the final two by a total of three points. Cincinnati, meanwhile, was victorious in its only visit, last season against Duke. If anything, the Bearcats might be more at home than the Tar Heels in an interesting inversion of home-field advantage.

“They were there last year, so their guys should be comfortable with where they’re at and the surroundings and know what they’re doing,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.

Oddly enough, this is not a problem shared by the other teams in the state. Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest are a combined 3-1 in their Belk Bowl appearances, with the Blue Devils suffering the only loss. (The ACC en masse is 6-5 in the bowl’s 11 year-history.)

North Carolina’s lack of success in Charlotte has been a big contributor to an overall lack of success in bowl games in recent years. The 2001 Peach Bowl win against Auburn under John Bunting, riding the broad shoulders of Julius Peppers to victory, was North Carolina’s fifth straight postseason win. The Tar Heels are 1-4 in bowl games since, including that 0-3 record in Charlotte.

Certainly, there were extenuating circumstances in some cases – the 2011 Independence Bowl loss to Missouri was a disaster on every front, from an interim coaching staff to an uninterested team to a low-rent venue, making “Shreveport” a four-letter word in Chapel Hill – but the general trend is surprising.

The only time the Tar Heels actually won a bowl game in the past decade was due in large part to the quick thinking of quarterback T.J. Yates at the end of the 2011 Music City Bowl. The Tar Heels were down three late, and as the field-goal team ran onto the field with the offense still at the line and not enough time to get the mess sorted out and no timeouts left, Yates called for the snap and spiked the ball as Tennessee celebrated and the referee declared the game over.

Upon further review, Yates’ spike came with a second left, and the too-many men penalty cost the Tar Heels 5 yards but left time to kick an overtime-forcing field goal. By the next season, a 10-second runoff had been added to the rulebook to prevent such shenanigans –too late for Tennessee, which ended up losing in double overtime as North Carolina celebrated an unlikely victory.

Quite a bit has changed in the intervening three years. There’s a new coaching staff. The postseason ban imposed by the NCAA has expired. Maybe the Tar Heels will even find some success in Charlotte, a place that should be friendly territory for the Tar Heels but for some reason hasn’t been yet.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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