North Carolina (2-2, 0-1 ACC) plays its final non-conference game of the 2012 regular season Saturday afternoon, as they welcome Idaho (0-4) to Kenan Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 pm from Chapel Hill.
UNC, at least on paper, looks to have a sizable advantage heading into this game, but Idaho showed in last week's overtime loss to Wyoming that they have some fighting spirit, as well as some guys who can make some plays.
Check out our 10 Keys to Saturday's ballgame:
HIT THE QUARTERBACK
While it would be helpful if the Tar Heels could knock Idaho QB Dominique Blackman to the ground before he can release the ball, just hitting him as much as possible would have a great impact on the game. The Tar Heels have to be smart. Defenders can't keep coming when they are two or three steps away when he releases the ball. But anyone within a step to a step and a half should nail this guy squarely every time possible.
Blackman is going to throw the ball quickly, so sacks may be hard to get. LSU, with its famous pass rush, did not sack him once. But this doesn't mean pressure in and of itself would not be effective. Make him throw off his back foot; make him throw sooner than he would like; make him throw it away at times. Just do not let Blackman get comfortable. He's in the top 10 nationally in completion percentage, connecting on over 73 percent of his passes so far this season, so he can hurt you if you allow him the freedom to make throws. But the whole of the Carolina defense is good enough to make it a long, painful day for Blackman, and that is exactly what UNC needs to do. For a team currently leading the ACC in sacks (3.25) and tackles per loss (9.3) per game, this could be a very favorable matchup for the Tar Heels.
SPREAD 'EM OUT
The 'spread' offense needs to be just that for UNC this weekend---a spread-out affair that stretches Idaho's marginal defense and renders them athletically unable to compete. From a purely physical standpoint the Tar Heels have the athletes to dominate this particular opponent offensively if they execute. And by extending the field with a combination of downfield passes and an array of shorter passes, Idaho will be gasping for air and a clue on how to stop it.
Idaho's defense has struggled mightily this fall, allowing an average of 428 yards per game so far this season. In its last two games alone the Vandals have given up a combined 103 points to LSU (63 points) and Wyoming (40 points).
While as an offense you don't necessarily want to go into a game with the expectation of scoring 40 points, for UNC against this team, it's a reasonable goal. Idaho simply doesn't have the back seven to stay with teams that feature quick, talented wide receivers and a good quarterback who can deliver it to them. By spreading out the Vandals linebackers and defensive backs, making them cover all angles of the field, leaks will spring. And UNC can take those leaks and literally run with them down the field, extending drives and ultimately reaching the end zone.
POUND IT OUT ON THE GROUND
Assuming Giovani Bernard did not aggravate his injury last week, he should be much closer to being his old self against the Vandals. Nevertheless, the other two backs some carries should get some playing time. A.J. Blue played well last week. He got more minutes than Romar Morris did. Morris needs to be on the field. With his hands and his speed, put him in the slot. Throw him the ball, but get him out there. This kid is a game-breaker, very similar to Bernard.
From the preseason until now, there has been a lot of talk about a lack of depth at wide receiver. Frankly, Morris is as good as anyone who plays receiver on this team. Get him the ball. The same goes for Blue. Blue has outstanding hands as well. He can also make significant plays in space. Bernard is going to get his, and rightfully so. He's an amazing talent. The other two can keep him fresh and produce big plays as well. So use them.
HOLD BASS IN CHECK
Idaho's offense is a pass-first, aerial assault that often goes to the running game as a means of diversion. But last week a potential gamebreaker emerged in the Vandals backfield in Ryan Bass, who rushed for 121 yards on 19 carries in Idaho's overtime loss to Wyoming.
Bass, a senior from Corona (Calif.) who transferred to Idaho from Arizona State and sat out the 2010 season, was a minimal impact for the Vandals in 2011, rushing for 175 yards and two touchdowns in seven games, and before the Wyoming game, had just 85 yards on 34 carries in Idaho's previous three contests this season. But last week, in what was undoubtedly the best single-game performance of his college career, Bass showed that he does have the ability to carry the mail and lead a team out of the backfield.
For UNC, the challenge this week is to completely shut down Bass, regressing him to the underachieving back that he's been for most of his college career. Certainly Bass's confidence has to be running high after last week's performance, and Idaho's coaches have to feel good about him moving forward, but on Saturday, the Tar Heels need to close his running lanes and bring him down on impact. Don't let him elude you. Don't let him run through the arms of would-be tacklers.
Idaho could really have a tough day offensively if UNC's linebackers are able to pin their ears back and consistently come after Blackman on so-called passing downs. The one way the Vandals could keep UNC honest, like they did against Wyoming last week, is to find a sustainable running game, and Bass is clearly the top option. If Carolina makes him sputter, Idaho's offense as a whole likely sputters.
So far so good for the UNC offensive line this fall, a unit that was expected to be one of the team's strengths. Through the first third of the season, UNC allowed just three sacks, tying them for first in the ACC with Duke and Boston College. But while the offensive line is an outstanding unit, it was obvious Larry Fedora saw some things he did not like with the line's play against East Carolina. For one, he was not happy the Tar Heels failed to run the ball better. Those guys on the line will open bigger holes this week.
One important key to Carolina dominating this game will be protecting Renner long enough for him to get the ball to open receivers. Renner is so accurate, and he can zip the ball. If the receivers get the separation they should, and the line gives him time, he will pick the Vandals' defense apart. The stats would suggest UNC is in good shape in this category, but they still have to go out and do it.
DOMINATE SPECIAL TEAMS
UNC is always looking for game-breaking plays on special teams, and this week should be no different. The Tar Heels should look to block another punt in this game. Or flip field position with a nice kick or punt return. If Morris can return kickoffs, why can he not return punts? Maybe there is a good reason, but we cannot see one from a distance. He has outstanding hands. He is gutsy. The guy is a football player, and he can flat-out run. This is just another way to get the ball into his hands.
UNC has been outstanding on special teams this season. The emphasis Coach Fedora places in this part of the game is evident by how Carolina performs in this key discipline. The Tar Heels are not always spectacular, as they were in the second half against Louisville, but they have been solid on a consistent basis, not letting average plays detract from the team's overall performance. And against Idaho, they have a chance to continue building the momentum as a team that thrives on special teams. In fact, the Tar Heels should strive to make at least two game-changing plays as they did against Louisville. Whether it's getting in front of a punt, getting a nice return, or doing a nice job in coverage of kickoffs or punts, Idaho's slim chances of victory become even slimmer if the Tar Heels show up and perform on special teams.
BARTH'S CONSISTENT LEG
It goes hand in hand of course with the special teams theme, but this week we felt senior Casey Barth deserved some special recognition, because his ability to keep Idaho's offense pinned back with effective kickoffs is paramount to the goal of the UNC defense to keep them in unfavorable situations with a long field. On kickoffs, Casey Barth did a great job of kicking the ball into the end zone last week, but unfortunately that is not the advantage it was before this year. The opposition gets the ball on the 25 now.
Barth has been excellent at kicking the ball to the left-corner (as UNC faces it) of the field, close to the goal line but not in it. This means the opposition has to return the ball, and Carolina has an advantage because it knows where the kick is going and pure hustle will lead to making plays. It is important there is no let-up in the kicking game this week.
While the Tar Heels likely won't need to rely on Barth for a game-winning kick against the Vandals, there's little doubt that at some point this season UNC will need him to make a big field goal. And he could very well get called upon more than one against Idaho. Step up there and put it through, as he's done all year since coming back from last year's injury. There's few things that make a coach happier than having a boring, automatic kicker, and Barth has been just that. Keep it going.
PLAY BIG IN THE SECONDARY
Idaho is going to be looking to challenge UNC's cornerbacks and safeties, likely from the time they first get the ball early in the game. They've shown ability to make plays and move the chains, and for the Tar Heels, whose secondary has shown woeful lapses of concentration and execution at different points this season, a letdown will not be helpful heading into ACC play in coming weeks.
The Tar Heels haven't been able to get a lot of big plays in the secondary this fall, making just three interceptions, and we've been saying all season in our 10 Keys features that getting a pick can make a huge difference. That's once again the case against this Idaho team that prides itself on offensive production.
If UNC plays in the back seven the way it did against another high-octane offense from East Carolina, Idaho will be in a particularly tough spot. Coverage sacks were a crucial element for UNC in the ECU triumph, as Carolina's defensive line feasted on the Pirates as their receivers couldn't get open downfield. If the Vandal wide receivers are tied up in a similar way, it will again be a smorgasbord of big play opportunities for the Tar Heel defensive line and linebackers around the quarterback.
FIGHT THE DOUBLE-TEAMS
This element of the game applies to several UNC players, but specifically guys like Eric Ebron and Sylvester Williams. Ebron, on offense, and Williams, on defense, both figure to see a great deal of double-teams by Idaho on Saturday. Ebron saw a lot of double-teaming this past week against East Carolina, especially around the red zone and end zone where he's so dangerous, while Williams is regularly taking on dual blockers, typically the opposing center and guard.
Idaho's running game will be in a lot of trouble if Williams has a big game, and in order to have a big game, he's going to have to come off the ball low, fast, and explosive. He needs to get his helmet across the line of scrimmage and get the momentum going his way before the center and/or guard engage him. He needs to be able to tie up those guys, and worst case get a stalemate near the line, thereby tying up two players to his one, and nullifying one potential running lane. At best, Williams springs through the double team and makes a play.
In Ebron's case, don't get frustrated if Idaho's secondary chips another player your way, especially close to the goal line. Keep fighting to get open and know the ball could come your way any time, so be ready for it. Ebron may only have to make one or two catches on Saturday, but they could be big ones if he fights through the inevitable Idaho double-teams and makes his way free downfield.
EMOTION AND INTENSITY
Although UNC is playing an 0-4 opponent that figures to stand little chance of winning, now is simply not the time to get complacent. With a huge ACC Coastal clash with Virginia Tech looming next week in Chapel Hill, UNC needs to use Saturday's game as a tune-up if nothing else. Go out and get the win, but make sure you play with intensity and with a chip on your shoulder. Play with the emotion and intensity as if the opponent were Alabama instead of Idaho. Take nothing for granted. This is the habit Fedora is working so hard to instill in the Tar Heels.
This is a game Carolina is capable of dominating if the Tar Heels begin the game fast and with a winning attitude. Jumping up and down, though, is not enough. Playing hard and with the proper concentration for four quarters is the equation for dominating on Saturday. Sustained concentration should be the lesson taken from losses at Wake Forest and at Louisville. It is obvious the Tar Heels could be undefeated had they adhered to this philosophy.
Now is the time, however, to overcome such shortcomings. The way to do that is not to talk but to perform. If Carolina comes out with a fierce intensity at the beginning of the game and plays with great focus on executing what the coaches have taught, UNC will be 3-2 after Saturday and will have come another step closer to building a winning habit.