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UNC football in the right environment on the road in opener

UNC football in the right environment on the road in opener

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North Carolina played three games during last season playing without fans, unless cardboard cutouts actually count, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on attendance. Friday’s opener at Virginia Tech will be quite a different atmosphere.

The Hokies announced a sellout, meaning the ACC opener for both schools will be in front of 66,000-plus fans. It marks the first time since its 43-41 six overtime loss in Blacksburg on Oct. 19, 2019 that the Tar Heels have played a game before more than 60,000. It’s the first time in 647 days that the Hokies have played in front of a capacity crowd.

“Unlike some people, I love going to stadiums that are full and have passionate fans like Virginia Tech — especially after last year,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “Our young people didn’t get to experience full stadiums and that’s just not the way college football is. You miss the pageantry and the fun. Virginia Tech’s got the great opening; they’ve got the tremendous fans; and it’s a fun place to play, a challenging place to play, but it’s a fun challenge.”

The Tar Heels have played Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” during their practices to prepare them for what they’re about to face. The song leads to what is widely regarded as one of the best team introductions in college football as the Hokies take the field.

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VT also has its annual “Orange Effect” planned, which means Lane Stadium will be packed with orange-clad fans. Although the overwhelming majority of that 66,000 will be rooting against Carolina, guard Josh Ezeudu said he’s excited just to have it feel like a real game again.

“You have people screaming their heads off just so it can help their team win,” Ezeudu said. “If you’re the away team you also hear fans stop screaming and shouting every time you do something good. So just the feel of it is just so much different, and that’s a feel every person, every sports fan, can’t wait to feel in a game too.”

The Heels played the Hokies last season before the state approved having any attendance at the game aside from the invites of senior players. It played Syracuse, Duke and Virginia Tech with essentially no crowd. Only Carolina’s games in the state of Florida, which had less-stringent COVID-19 protocols, had crowds of more than 10,000 last season. The biggest crowd they played in front of was 18,016 in their 31-28 loss at Florida State.

Nothing about the atmosphere will score points, but defensive end Tomon Fox, a “super senior” who will be making his third trip to Blacksburg, said it’s not an atmosphere the Heels’ younger players can prepare for in advance.

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“Honestly, words are not going to do any justice, you’re just gonna go out there and experience it themselves,” Fox said. “I just tell them to make sure to stay focused. It’s a loud, loud environment and there’s a lot of energy going around, but stay focused on the field.”

Brown said more games in the opening weekend of college football are lost due to mistakes that add up more than are won by the merits of being a better team. He’s tried to simulate the Lane Stadium noise as best he could with loud music and crowd noise pumped over the speaker system to prepare the Heels to play with it.

UNC quarterback Sam Howell said even then, Lane Stadium really couldn’t be simulated. He’s relying on the maturity and experience of an offensive line that returned all its starters.

“We’re not just going to stand there in my stance and just make calls,” Howell said. “Now you have to walk up to line and make sure everybody’s hearing you and you have to say a couple more times than you really want to. You really have to take that extra step to make sure we’re on the same page.”

UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said the team has played loud music during practices even while the defense is on the field. Most home crowds try to temper their noise when on offense, but Gemmel said that’s not the case in Lane Stadium.

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“Sometimes a home crowd likes to get quiet for the offense but playing up at V-Tech, they don’t get quiet, they stay loud,” Gemmel said. “So I think he’s helping both the offense and defense to get a little noise in the stadium and in the practice facility to help us on Friday.”

Carolina hasn’t won at Virginia Tech since 2015 — which also coincides with the only season the Tar Heels have won the ACC Coastal Division.

Brown said he’d much rather prepare for comparable season-opening opponents than to pay some smaller school to play in Chapel Hill and get pummeled.

“It’s a lot harder to prepare a team to go play in front of a half full stadium, than it is when they’re pumped and full,” Brown said. “It’s just a motivator for your team.”

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