WVU faces North Carolina in Mayo Bowl with 9 wins in sight

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s been over four weeks since either West Virginia or North Carolina have played a football game. A lot has happened in that time, the transfer portal has opened, conference championships have been played and players have declared for the NFL Draft.

The two teams that match up in this year’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl (5:30 p.m./ESPN) in Charlotte, N.C. are different than the teams that last played on Nov. 25.

“We’ll be a little bit different than when we played at Baylor, but I don’t know if that’s all bad,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “And North Carolina probably feels the same way.”

The Mountaineers (8-4, 6-3 Big 12) will be without leading rusher CJ Donaldson (injury), starting center Zach Frazier (injury/draft) and starting defensive tackle Mike Lockhart (transfer), as well as several depth players who entered the transfer portal.
The Tar Heels (8-4, 4-4 ACC) are missing star quarterback Drake Maye (draft), starting center Corey Gaynor and top receiver Tez Walker (draft) as well as its top two tight ends (injury).

“North Carolina has had a few opt-outs and they have a few guys in the portal, just like everybody in the country right now,” Brown said. “But I also think in bowl games, it goes to the team that’s most excited. They’re going to play a lot of new guys in the game and those guys are going to be really excited.”

North Carolina heads into the bowl game on the tail end of a disappointing season. UNC was picked to finish third in the ACC led by Maye, one of the top quarterbacks in the country.

The first half of the season went off without a hitch as the Tar Heels started 6-0 and were ranked No. 10 in the country. They went 2-4 in the second half, however, with their only wins coming against FCS Campbell and Duke in double overtime.

While watching film, Brown said he couldn’t identify what caused UNC’s sudden reversal of fortune, instead deferring the question to Mack Brown, his septuagenarian counterpart.

“That’s probably a question for them,” WVU’s Brown said. “I see a group that’s talented. I think they’re dangerous because they have some new people playing. I think that’s underrated, especially in the bowl season. Everybody pays attention to who’s not playing, but all these other guys have got new opportunities. We’re going to see some new players.”

Something that jumps off the page about North Carolina’s second half of the season is a porous run defense. In its last five games against FBS competition, opponents averaged 234.4 rushing yards against UNC. Ironically, West Virginia averaged 234.3 yards per game as the top rushing attack in the country this season.

With the extended layoff between games, however, Brown said there will be a focus on maintaining the team’s physicality needed to have rushing success.
“We’re a running football team,’ Brown said. “We need to get our work in while being cognizant of we’re not being too physical.”

The benefit to the time off has been some much-needed time to rest and recover following the 12-week regular season.

“Off time is good, we definitely needed it,” WVU quarterback Garrett Greene said. “The first practice back, our wide receivers had a little different gear to them because they have fresh legs. As we near the game, it gets more critical on the attention to detail and getting back to what we were successful at.”

Greene was one of three 700-yard rushers for WVU this season, joined by Donaldson and true freshman Jahiem White, who will start the game with Donaldson injured.

Defensively, North Carolina caused a lot of turnover this season, snagging 12 interceptions and recovering nine fumbles.

“If you look at the teams that lost (bowl games), there were a lot of turnovers,” Brown said. “The flip side of that on defense is missed tackles.”

Missed tackles could come into play because, like the Mountaineers, North Carolina also liked to run the football this season. Sophomore Omarion Hampton was named first-team All-ACC after rushing for 1,442 yards and 15 touchdowns this year.

“Their running back is a really, really good player,” Brown said. “We’ve played some really good running backs this year, but he’s as good as any that we’ve played.
“It is a challenge. We’re not tackling (in practice). We’re trying to be as physical as we can while keeping people off the ground.”

The Mountaineers are looking for their first bowl win since 2020 and just their second since 2016. A win would also give them nine wins this season, a mark not reached since that 2016 season.

“This is our first time to get to nine wins in a couple years, so this is a big deal,” White said. “We’re very excited to get out there and play against North Carolina in North Carolina.”

UNC meanwhile wants to end the year on a positive note with some momentum going into 2024. The Tar Heels have made five straight bowl games, but have dropped three straight since last winning in 2019.