By Todd Vinyard, Special to CatamountSports.com
Cullowhee, N.C. – Following last Saturday’s disappointing 35-33 home loss to Mercer, the Western Carolina University football team talked about the need to “go finish.”
Finishing for Western Carolina (7-4, 5-3 Southern Conference) means going to the North Carolina Tar Heels (2-8, 1-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) this Saturday in Chapel Hill for the final regular season contest. The Catamounts were hoping to enter the contest with their Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoff situation more secure. But a tough loss at home to Mercer leaves the only season certainty in the game against the Tar Heels and a chance to finish strong.
"I hurt for these seniors and our program because this was the next step in moving our football program forward,” said WCU head coach Mark Speir, referencing making the next step to the post-season – something that has only been accomplished once in Cullowhee as a Division I program and a drought that dates back to 1983. “It was a disappointing loss to Mercer. All we can do now is go finish. We’ve got one week guaranteed. We have to go finish."
The Catamounts twice fought to within two points in the fourth quarter behind a season-high 378 pass yards from quarterback Tyrie Adams as he tossed three touchdowns in the contest in earning the SoCon’s weekly offensive player of the week plaudit. But the visiting Bears held on for the victory which came thanks to turnovers and timely special teams play.
"This hurts, but we have to focus on next week and be ready to play,” senior WR Terryon Robinson said after Saturday’s game. “No one on our team had been in this situation of playing for the playoffs, so it is different. We were prepared. We just came up short. We've got to finish strong and be ready for North Carolina."
WCU will play its first-ever football game against UNC-Chapel Hill. This year’s matchup takes place as the Catamounts are hopeful to be among the 24 teams in the FCS football playoffs. FCS teams have beaten Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) before like The Citadel over South Carolina (2015) or Appalachian State beating Michigan (2007) – both relevant because of the conference ties to The Citadel and how the Bulldogs played their way into the post-season with the victory – and of course, many pieces of the App State coaching staff now reside in Cullowhee.
And perhaps another amethystine omen – a purple-clad Furman team upended the Tar Heels, 28-3, in Chapel Hill back on Oct. 30, 1999. That win is one of 29 by SoCon teams over FBS opponents since 1982 – 12 of which coming against ACC foes.
FCS schools have nine wins this season against NCAA FBS programs. The FCS had 10 wins against its FBS brethren last year, one more than 2015, and tied for the fourth-most in a single season in NCAA history. The FCS set a record in 2013 with 16 wins against FBS schools.
All told, though, the Cats know preparation this week will be a key.
"We have got to worry about the next day at hand which is Sunday, and then we have to worry about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then Friday,” senior DB Keion Crossen said. “Then we can worry about Saturday and North Carolina. It is an opportunity. We are looking forward to it. We've got to move forward and try to get our eighth win."
The 21 Catamount senior football players have been part of a team that has won at least seven games three times in the last four years. The seven wins in 2014 was the best record by a WCU team in a decade and first winning record since 2005.
“It is hard to think about after a game like this, but I am thankful for this class,” said Speir following the Mercer loss. “I told them the good Lord put us together to do something special and I still believe that. These guys have had a lot of victories on the field, but they have had a lot of wins off the field, too, by how they treat people on this campus and in our community. I’m so proud of our seniors in particular and this whole football team. Now we have to prepare for North Carolina.”
Speir expects to see the character of his team this week and feels the combination of a game with the flagship of WCU’s university system and possible playoff hopes in the balance.
"A lot of these guys grew up Tar Heel fans and they will be excited to go play. Just like last year at South Carolina when we had nothing to play for and we gave them a good game,” he said. “I know our guys will rebound and they will play as tough as they can. We can either say we had a nice run or we can go battle. All we can do is control what we can control, and then next Sunday figure out if we get to play more or we don't."
Western Carolina faces North Carolina Tar Heels with kickoff scheduled for 3 p.m. The Tar Heels enter the game having snapped a six-game losing streak with a 34-31 victory over Pittsburgh on the road. Saturday’s game will be on the ACC Network Extra, which is much like ESPN3 and available online at ESPN3.com and through the WatchESPN app. Fans can also find the broadcast on the ACC Network Extra through devices such as Roku, Apple TV, etc. Viewers will be required to log-in with a username and password using their cable television or satellite provider.
Fans can listen to the game on the Catamount Sports Network on local radio affiliates or at www.catamountsports.com.
Additional Mid-Week Notes:
- Four teams have locked-in their place in this year’s FCS post-season by securing their league’s respective automatic bids: San Diego was the first as it won the outright title in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League (PFL) … Central Connecticut State won the Northeast Conference (NEC) … Second-ranked Jacksonville State claimed at least a share of the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) title, earning the bid for a fourth-straight year … Wofford is the automatic qualifier (AQ) from the SoCon, claiming at least a share of the 2017 crown as it still could share the title with Upstate rival, Furman, but holds the tie-breaker after a one-point, week-one victory;
- The 24-team playoffs, consisting of 10 conference champions that receive automatic bids and 14 at-large selections, will be announced on Sunday, Nov. 19 in a special selection show at 11:00 am … the first round will be held on Nov. 25, with games held on campus sites until the championship game on Jan. 6 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas;
- Following last week’s loss in the home regular season finale, Western Carolina slipped in the national rankings, falling into the “others receiving votes” category in both national polls … WCU is the sixth team in the “others” category in both the FCS Coaches poll and the STATS FCS media poll, placing the Catamounts 31st in the nation … WCU has appeared in the STATS media polling for 11-consecutive weeks after receiving votes back on Sept. 4, and has graced the coaches’ tabulations for eight-straight weeks, first receiving votes on Sept. 25.