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West Virginia, UNC meet despite different paths to bowl game


Not many expected West Virginia and North Carolina to be in Duke’s Mayo Bowl, but for entirely different reasons.

West Virginia (8-4) was picked last in the preseason Big 12 poll and head coach Neal Brown firmly was on the hot seat. The Mountaineers finished 6-3 in the Big 12, good for a tie for fourth place.

The Mountaineers are probably excited to be here.

North Carolina (8-4) had national championship aspirations and was ranked as high as No. 10 after winning its first six games. But UNC lost four of its final six to finish 4-4 in the ACC, in a three-way tie for sixth place.

The Tar Heels probably are struggling for motivation.

“The goal is to make this an enjoyable experience for our players and to get a ninth win,” Brown said when the matchup was announced. “It’s a quality matchup, and I have a lot of respect for (North Carolina coach) Mack Brown, what he’s done during his coaching career and how he conducts his business.

“They’re one of the top 10 offenses in the country, and they’re really balanced. We know their personnel well because we recruited a lot of their guys and didn’t get them.”

One of the nation’s best rushing teams, West Virginia is averaging 234.3 yards per game, third among FBS teams. The Mountaineers spread it around, with three different backs rushing for at least 64 yards per game. Jahiem White leads with 72 yards per game. Garrett Greene (13) and CJ Donaldson Jr. (11) each have double figures in touchdowns.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl is West Virginia’s 40th bowl appearance, including 19 in the past 22 years. This is the third meeting between the two schools, all in bowl games, with each winning once.

Maybe the mayonnaise bath that goes to the winning coach will help UNC smooth some bruised egos.

“We need to win,” Brown said. “I’d let someone hit me with a frying pan 365 days if we won. Mayonnaise is easy.”

Brown’s biggest concern will be replacing star quarterback Drake Maye, who likely will be selected early in the 2024 NFL Draft. Maye passed for 3,608 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2023, but he opted out of the bowl game to focus on his preparation for the draft.

He’ll be replaced by freshman Conner Harrell.

Harrell has appeared mostly in late-game situations. He played in four games, completing 4-of-6 passes with one touchdown. But he knows it’s his time to shine.

“This is an opportunity to prove what I can do, how I can play,” Harrell said of his preparation for his first start. “So definitely every practice, no matter if we’re in shorts or pads, every throw is an opportunity to show what I can do.”

The Tar Heels will be very thin at two other positions: tight end and wide receiver. Bryson Nesbit and John Copenhaver are injured and Kamari Morales is in the transfer portal. The Tar Heels will have no scholarship tight ends making the trip. The only tight end on the depth chart to have caught a pass is redshirt freshman Deems May.

At wide receiver, Devontez Walker’s departure for the NFL and Kobe Paysour’s foot injury means a lot of attention will be on UNC’s fourth-leading receiver in 2023, Nate McCollum.

–Field Level Media

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