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September 3, 2013

Not Your Typical Cupcake

Coming off a stinging season-opening loss at South Carolina, North Carolina (0-1) returns home this weekend for its home opener in Kenan Stadium against Conference USA opponent Middle Tennessee (1-0).

The Blue Raiders dominated Western Carolina this past Saturday in its first game, recording 475 yards in a balanced offensive performance.

Certainly the Tar Heels are much better than Western Carolina, a program that has gone 12-67 since its last winning season in 2005, but UNC cannot afford to get too overly complacent that they're just going to go out and wipe the floor with this opponent from the Volunteer State.

While the Tar Heels are an early three touchdown favorite, Middle Tennessee is not your classic early-season cupcake.

Ask Maryland, who lost twice in a row to the Blue Raiders in 2008 and 2009 during the undoing of the Ralph Friedgen era, or Georgia Tech, who just last September were embarrassed 49-28 on their home field by MTSU.

You'd have to go back two decades---to the 41-3 drubbing Mack Brown's Tar Heels laid on Bill Lewis's Georgia Tech squad in 1993---for a North Carolina victory as convincing at Middle Tennessee's triumph last fall in Atlanta.

And while some folks might already be looking ahead to a bye week for North Carolina and two weeks to prepare for Paul Johnson's triple-option offense in Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field September 21, the bottom line is that Middle Tennessee isn't a win to take completely for granted.

UNC needs to make substantial improvements this week in practice in what many coaches call the best window of opportunity all season to get better---between the first and second games.

"First of all, we need to understand this team that's coming in here, they've beaten ACC teams. They did it last year, and they've done it before," said head coach Larry Fedora in Monday's weekly press conference.

"We'll have all of our focus on Middle Tennessee. We won't be worried about the bye week or what's coming down the road. It will be all about Middle Tennessee."

For UNC's defense, one challenge is to slow down MTSU's tailback tandem of Jordan Parker, who ran for 156 yards, including a 65-yard run and a touchdown in the opener, and William Pratcher, who had a 38-yard carry on his way to 71 yards on just 10 carries.

Both Pratcher and Parker averaged over seven yards per carry in the opener, aided by their longer carries.

Granted, that was against Western Carolina's defense. But UNC, coming off a performance against South Carolina in which missed tackles and blown assignments led to a series of long gainers that got them beaten, have to be much stronger defensively and avoid the types of technical breakdowns that can lead to big plays for the Blue Raiders.

"Middle Tennessee, which we can't take them lightly. They beat Georgia Tech last year, and they definitely have the talent to come in here and upset us, so we definitely have to come out here and play our 'A' game," said senior defensive end Kareem Martin.

One limiting factor for the Blue Raiders this week is the potential loss of quarterback Logan Kilgore, a three-year starter who injured his shoulder against the Catamounts and likely won't play against UNC. Kilgore completed 12 of 18 passes for 144 yards and a score before giving way to redshirt freshman Austin Grammer, who was 7 of 9 passing for 61 yards.

Playing in front of what they hope will be a loud and spirited home crowd inside Kenan Stadium for the 12:30 pm kickoff, Martin knows that the Tar Heels have to get some pressure on Grammer and prove to the locals that they're over the loss to the Gamecocks and ready to get on with their season.

"Morale is till pretty high," Martin said. "We felt like we beat ourselves (against South Carolina), especially defensively. They had two big touchdowns, and we felt like we gave them (away to them). After watching the film morale is still pretty high because we see we're a pretty good football team when we get everything together."

"Just being able to come play in front of our home crowd---a crowd that's on your side---it means a lot to play here in Kenan. You only get so many opportunities to ever play in here, and you want to make every one of them count."

"The goal is to go undefeated at home, and you know, it starts this week with Middle Tennessee. We want to come in here and show the fans we've bounced back from South Carolina, and give them hope for the rest of the season," Martin added.

Offensively, UNC has to like its chances against a MTSU defense that gave up 371 yards against WCU, including 257 through the air. The Catamounts even managed to score 24 points.

While Middle Tennessee's offense is certainly more than capable enough to put up points against a UNC defense that still hasn't proven itself invulnerable to big plays, there seems little doubt that the Tar Heels will put up plenty of points too in a game that could be high-scoring.

Even so, it's an important week of adjustments and improvements for Bryn Renner and the UNC offense.

Now that they're a week in, Renner and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson have a little bit better feel for what they're doing, what works, and what guys can perhaps be given more responsibilities in a game scenario. Johnathan Howard could be in that category, as well as Ryan Switzer.

Certainly somebody has to take some pressure off Quinshad Davis and Eric Ebron, who figure to get rolling coverages and zones against MTSU.

The Blue Raiders did get three sacks last weekend against Western Carolina, so the UNC offensive line, coming off a more-than-acceptable performance against Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina defensive line, need to once again step up and be prepared to keep people off Renner.

"We've been watching a ton of film just since we had a couple extra days, and they're a very athletic team. They can beat anybody any day," said Renner of Middle Tennessee.

"They beat Georgia Tech last year, and I think definitely we understand how good of an opponent that we're about to play. We're not going to look past them at all."


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