Cal football seeks to protect home turf against vengeful Tar Heels

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Phillip Downey/File

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Cal fans surely recall running back Patrick Laird’s touchdown against UNC in 2017 — 54 yards and a reading celebration in the endzone later, the Bears were up 21-17 in the third quarter over the heavily favored Tar Heels.

The once-under-the-radar redshirt senior Laird now enters Cal’s 2018 season opener against UNC as the starting running back. What many fans don’t know, however, is that the 2017 touchdown was really Jordan Veasy’s.

“Veasy always jokes that that’s his touchdown, it’s not mine,” Laird said.

Without Veasy’s block on UNC’s redshirt senior safety Donnie Miles, it is likely that Laird would not have made his way into the oh-so-desirable endzone. Without Veasy’s block, perhaps the final score wouldn’t end 35-30, in favor of Cal.

The Bears are now the favorite heading into their season opener, where they look to lay the hurt on the Tar Heels for the second year in a row. The most lethal aspect of UNC’s game is its front four on the defensive line, but Cal’s blocking front on the offensive line has been preparing for this moment.

“We’re taking it on our backs to get ready for the game and to really carry the team,” said starting left tackle senior Patrick Mekari. “We know that their defensive line is the best part about their team, and we’re looking forward to the challenge to be better than last year.”

The Tar Heels’ defense is anchored by redshirt senior defensive end Malik Carney, who racked up five tackles and a sack against the Bears last year. Alongside Carney, redshirt senior defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke is sure to start trouble on the line of scrimmage as he stands at a lethal 6’5’’, 315 pounds.

Aside from Cal’s offensive line opening up the run game, the front men will be playing for their starting quarterback redshirt junior Ross Bowers. Bowers needs a ferocious start if he wants to silence an uneasy crowd that will likely be drooling for the former South Carolina Gamecock, redshirt sophomore Brandon McIlwain, to hit the field.

The Tar Heels are also likely to place heavy emphasis on their run game. It would come as no surprise for UNC to feed running backs junior Jordon Brown and sophomore Michael Carter. As a true freshman, Carter put up two touchdowns and led his team in rushing against Cal. In that game, three of the Tar Heels’ four touchdowns came by foot, and the other from then-redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt.

In the wake of a shoe-selling scandal, NCAA violations and 13 suspensions, however, Surratt and others such as redshirt freshman defensive end Tyrone Hopper will not see the field against Cal. Cal’s outside linebackers, senior Alex Funches and redshirt sophomore Cameron Goode, will instead be gunning for redshirt junior quarterback Nathan Elliott. When Elliott targets his receivers, there should not be too many significant mismatches pitted against Cal’s secondary.

The Bears, on the flipside, will have their starting gunslinger at the helm. Bowers’ go-to targets are likely to include the trio of starting wide receivers in redshirt senior Vic Wharton III, junior Jordan Duncan and redshirt junior Kanawai Noa.

Looking to lock up the Cal receivers will be UNC’s junior cornerback Patrice Rene and senior safety J.K. Britt. Rene was the Tar Heels’ second-leading tackler in 2017, racking up nine total tackles and five solo tackles.

Nothing is more exciting than opening the season with a long-awaited rematch, and this first game is an immensely important chess move in Cal’s pursuit of a victorious season. A win could send the Bears rolling on a three-game streak, while a loss could send them tumbling and potentially set them back two early losses on the year.

“The anticipation is always going to be killer,” Bowers said. “Just feels like we’ve been waiting for so long, and it’s like, ‘Finally, it’s here.’ ”

Christie Aguilar covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @caguilarsports.