The North Carolina Tar Heels are 3-0 for the second time in three years as they enter their first road game of the season. Interim head coach Everett Withers is undefeated since taking the reins from Butch Davis, who was fired this past offseason. The Tar Heels won their ACC opener for the first time in eleven years after beating Virginia 28-17 last week. Although not ranked in the AP Poll, they currently sit at No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. In order for the Tar Heels to remain undefeated and move up in the rankings, they should plan on doing the following this Saturday.
First, the Tar Heels’ defense must be forceful in stopping the Jackets from executing big plays. This defense has only given up an average of 16.3 points per game and their front seven has 10 sacks and only allows 77 rushing yards per game, equating to 11th and 16th in the entire FBS, respectively. Senior safety Matt Merletti is coming off a breakout performance against Virginia last week in which he recorded seven tackles and intercepted two passes on Virginia’s final two possessions. The combined strength of the running and passing defense will be a huge factor in determining the outcome.
Next, the Tar Heels will have to expect their running game to produce. UNC senior running back Ryan Houston ran for two scores last week as redshirt freshman Giovanni Bernard rushed for 102 yards on 12 carries. It was the first 100-yard game of Bernard’s career, as he sat out his first season last year with a knee injury. UNC is averaging 179 rushing yards per game and managed to gain 132 yards on the ground against Rutgers’ No. 12-ranked rush defense. The balanced stable of backs at UNC could pose problems for the Tech defense.
Third, UNC should strive to control the ball and clock in an effort to set the tempo for this game. The Tar Heels hope to string together a few scoring drives early and keep the Jackets’ defense on the field. Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner has completed 81 percent of his passes this year and has been sacked only once. By minimizing turnovers and sustaining drives, they should not have to catch up to Tech’s potent offense.
The Jackets kick off Family Weekend this year against the Tar Heels in their first nationally televised game of the season. Tech comes in with a No. 25 ranking in the AP Poll, marking the first time it has been in the rankings since its loss to Kansas last year. The Jackets are looking to start the season 4-0 for the first time since their 1990 National Championship season. UNC was the only team the Jackets did not beat that season; They played the Tar Heels to a tie on the way to their 11-0-1 campaign. Here are three things the Jackets will have to do in order to remain undefeated.
First, the Jackets will again have to rely on their running game to put up big numbers both on the scoreboard and the stat sheet. Last week against Kansas, the Jackets broke several records, including the NCAA record for yards per rushing attempt with 12.1 yards per attempt. The Jackets also broke the ACC record for net rushing yards in a single game with 604. They scored nine touchdowns with seven of them coming on the ground, including a 95-yard counter play by junior A-back Orwin Smith on Tech’s first play from scrimmage. Thanks in large part to their rushing attack, Tech leads the nation with 59.3 points per game, 427 rushing yards per game and 675 yards of total offense per game.
Although they have put up huge numbers, Tech’s rushing attack faces its toughest opponent yet, as North Carolina averages only 77 rushing yards allowed per game. In order to overcome this, the Jackets will have to balance their triple option with a consistent passing game. Junior quarterback Tevin Washington threw two long touchdown passes last week against Kansas and has not thrown an interception all season. Smith racked up 108 receiving yards and a touchdown on only two catches. If the Tar Heels can slow down the triple option, Smith may see the ball thrown his way a few more times.
Finally, Tech’s defense will have to step up against a North Carolina team that scores an average of 31.3 points per game. The Jackets’ defense has had some trouble on third down this season, allowing opponents to convert 48 percent of their third down attempts. They must also improve in pressuring the opposing quarterback, as Tech has only five sacks this season as opposed to North Carolina’s ten. Getting to the quarterback early and often and containing the Tar Heels’ rushers may very well determine Tech’s success in this game.