By R.L. Bynum
Preparing for a bowl game this year is unlike any previous season. This time, it means preparing mentally for the chance that COVID-19 issues could force your game to be canceled.
North Carolina kept up with N.C. State’s frustrating Tuesday in San Diego, with the Wolfpack’s Holiday Bowl game against UCLA canceled hours before it was supposed to start.
“I’ve told our team all we can control is us,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “Don’t let us be the reason we don’t play and, so far, they’ve done a good job with that.”
Brown said midday Wednesday that, under the Orange County Health Department guidelines that his team follows, Tar Heels players won’t be tested again before Thursday’s 11:30 a.m. Duke’s Mayo Bowl matchup in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium with South Carolina.
Brown said that the number of positive tests in his program was “minimal to none” and that, as of the press conference, his team was in great shape.
“It’s been really difficult to look at everything going on across the country and see if you’re going to play or not,” Brown said. “So, every day guys are asking, ‘Coach, do you think we’re going to play?’ And I’ve said, ‘stay safe. Don’t get sick.’ “
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren complained that UCLA didn’t alert his program that there were potential issues. But Brown said he’s had no discussions with South Carolina coach Shane Beamer about which players would be out.
“The way I understand that, there’s not any communication. If there would be, it would be between doctors,” Brown said. “I don’t know anything about South Carolina’s medical situation. Haven’t asked. Haven’t been told. Haven’t heard. I think that’s probably a medical question. It’s a good question. But the biggest thing would be if the doctors get so there’s a concern about the game; do they talk?”
Unlike last season at the Orange Bowl, the Tar Heels enjoyed bowl-week activities such as riding in a race car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, attending a Charlotte Hornets game and going on a shopping spree at Belk’s.
Through all of that, there has always been the worry that the battle for a winning season between 6–6 teams might become the latest bowl to be canceled.
“It’s been crazy,” said linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel, who is set to play his last game as a Tar Heel. “The guys on the team, we have just been working day to day, go and practice and practice. I think we’re focused on the goal at hand, even though everything around us gets canceled. I think we’ve done a great job with COVID over the past two years.”
Like Gemmel, record-breaking quarterback Sam Howell will likely finish his college career just as it started — against South Carolina in Charlotte. That, of course, is not certain during this crazy bowl season with the omicron variant rapidly spreading.
“I’ve been trying not to worry about it, honestly,” Howell said. “Obviously, it could happen. But we’re preparing like we’re going to play a game. We’re going to do what we can; if something does happen, that happens. We’ll just deal with it when that happens. But we’re preparing to play.”
The testing situation has led to frustrating outcomes. Beamer said that he’s had a couple of players test positive for the virus this week with no symptoms. That includes a senior walk-on who, instead of preparing to play his last college game, drove home.
“Every single one of the positives that we had yesterday, there were zero symptoms,” Beamer said. “They all felt great, had great weeks of practice and all that as well. So, certainly something that we’re working through right now.”
For now, expect the game to be played on Thursday. But if the bowl season so far is any indication, stay tuned.