What will it take for North Carolina to get back into the win column Saturday at Louisville? Tar Heel Illustrated takes you inside the key topics that will determine the outcome. Kickoff is scheduled for approximately 3:30 pm, and will be seen locally in the North Carolina Triangle on ABC 11 (WTVD).
THI has multiple staff onsite at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and will be providing full postgame coverage.
COVERAGE BY LINEBACKERS, SECONDARY
Wake Forest was able to pull the game out last week because the UNC secondary could not cover well enough to buy the pass rush just one or two more seconds to sack quarterback Tanner Price. UNC's pass rushers put pressure on Price, but they needed just a bit more time because the Wake Forest coaches had Price releasing the ball quicker than usual because of their respect for the Carolina defensive line. The Louisville receivers have outstanding speed, so the UNC secondary is in for a genuine challenge again this week.
For the Tar Heels, the task is to make sure that when the linebackers, 'Bandit' or 'Ram' go after the quarterback on the blitz, somebody accounts for the Louisville players running routes into the spots where the blitzing UNC player used to be. Wake Forest took what the Tar Heels gave them by picking away at spots where UNC was left vulnerable with their aggressive blitzing. Guys like Travis Hughes, Kevin Reddick, Tommy Heffernan, Gene Robinson, Pete Mangum and others must come up big to fill these spots when they open up.
VETERAN LEADERSHIP FROM RENNER
Renner has just one road win so far as UNC's starting quarterback---last year's triumph at East Carolina---while taking losses at places like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Clemson, and now Wake Forest. It's still relatively early in Renner's tenure as Carolina's QB 1, but that's not exactly a spectacular start. Saturday is an excellent chance to start reversing that trend against an opponent that would get Carolina some notice if they can pull it off.
Look, we all know last week was a tough one for Renner, and we can spend all month (or all year for that matter) talking about whether Renner hurt his head or had his wind knocked out. But all that is over with. The question now is what he does with this opportunity against the Cardinals. It's a new week, a new game, and if he plays well, everyone will quickly forget the struggles---and the questions regarding his head---from the Wake game.
But if Renner struggles, makes poor decisions or otherwise doesn't play well against Louisville, it makes him and his head coach an easy mark for more questions about his health and whether he may have been rushed back into action in Winston-Salem.
But beyond his individual play, Renner also needs to show some leadership and veteran toughness in this one. He's the guy that everyone else is looking to. The example comes from him. Renner carries himself with class and professionalism off the field, but as a fourth-year junior, now's the time to push himself and his team over the hump by being the leader on the field, in a tough road game. Simply put, get it done.
BEAT 'EM AT THEIR OWN GAME
With Teddy Bridgewater under center, Louisville is going to employ a fast-paced no-huddle offense not unlike what the Tar Heels are running offensively. That means that there's going to be a bunch of plays run on Saturday, and either or both defenses could get pretty winded by day's end. For Carolina, the key is to take advantage of this somehow.
UNC needs to make sure it controls the football by not turning it over, and then win time of possession by stretching out drives and getting first downs. While UNC isn't going to grind out the clock anytime soon, the fact that Louisville is also looking to score quickly means that Carolina should have the ball. A lot. What will they do with it? They need to control the ball and take care of the ball. They can score quickly, as this offense is designed to do, but with the number of offensively plays UNC could run in this game, they can still strike a healthy balance between scoring quickly and controlling the football.
STONE THE RUNNING GAME
This may have gone unnoticed, but in the first two games Carolina's defense held its opponents to fewer than two years per carry. Two yards. That is beyond outstanding. We know, we know, it was Elon and Wake Forest, but stopping the run is the first order of business for any defense, and if the Tar Heels can even come within the neighborhood of doing this against Louisville, their chances of winning this game will increase dramatically. Louisville has run the ball extremely well in the opening two games, so this will not be an easy task, particularly on the road, but UNC has already shown its front seven can play the run.
ANOTHER KEY PICK?
In the second half of last week's loss at Wake Forest, Carolina got what we might call a potential 'game changer' on defense when sophomore cornerback Tim Scott stepped in front of a Price pass deep in Demon Deacons territory, and suddenly the Tar Heels had a chance to put the game away.
While UNC wasn't able in that particular moment to get the touchdown that likely would have won the ball game, they can't afford to make the same mistake against Louisville. Bridgewater is a solid and effective quarterback and he may not make many mistakes, but if he does---especially deep in Louisville real estate---Carolina simply must take advantage. And this time they need to put the ball into the end zone. Score touchdowns. This offense is built to score touchdowns, and at this stage of the game it needs to do just that if the Tar Heels wish to realize their goals this season.
IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON'T FIX IT
Run the football when the offense is getting 4 and 5 yards per carry. Balance, balance, balance. Balance is great, but compiling a massive amount of rushing yards and finishing those drives with points, particularly touchdowns, is how teams win games. This team is built to throw it and run it.
The system works, but in the fourth quarter when Carolina's massive offensive line is shredding the defense, let those young men keep doing their jobs. A.J. Blue and Romar Morris can carry the load behind this line. Use play action some to punish the Cardinals if they struggle to stop the run. That surely would have slowed down the Wake Forest pass rush. Don't give this game away by going away from what's working. If Carolina is running the ball, keep running the ball. It doesn't make you weak or non-innovative by sticking to a formula that's having success.
BRING THE EFFORT
Continue to play as hard and with as much desire as the Tar Heels did in the first two games. A couple players said they became a bit lackadaisical after beating Elon, but I do not believe that. This is a new system. These kids have done a tremendous job learning it, and they were one drive from being 2-0 with a new coaching staff, coming off the worst scandal in the history of the program.
Larry Fedora and his coaches have taught this team well. They also have an excellent way with the players. Play without fear this week, play hard and be as smart as possible and the Tar Heels may just leave Kentucky with a big-time victory, one which could propel them on to greater things as they progress into the schedule.
COUNTER LOUISVILLE'S DEFENSIVE SPEED
While Elvis Dumervil may no longer be on the Louisville roster to terrorize another Carolina quarterback, Charlie Strong has a fast, relentless young defense that has been highly effective so far this season against marginal competition. So far through two games eight different Louisville defenders have tackles for losses, and three have sacks. For Carolina the task is to make sure all gaps are filled up front and ensure that Louisville can't spend the day harassing Bryn Renner and working into the offensive backfield.
By attacking an aggressive defense with their own brand of fast-paced, aggressive football, UNC will have a chance offensively to seize the initiative and the momentum. The question is can they do it? Coming off last year's abysmal offensive performance by UNC against Louisville, it won't be easy. At least Fedora has an expansive understanding of Strong's schemes and what he's trying to accomplish, having worked with him for some time at Florida last decade.
MAKE THE CARDINALS BLUE
Okay, so we now know for sure that Giovani Bernard didn't make the trip to Louisville. Not having Bernard didn't cost the Tar Heels the Wake Forest game, and it shouldn't cost them this one if they can again run the ball successfully behind A.J. Blue. Blue was a force last week against a veteran Wake Forest defense, rushing for 106 yards, and he needs to have a similar outing Saturday to give UNC its best chance against this particular team.
Blue may not have the flat-out game-breaking speed and moves that Bernard has, but he sure looked solid at several key points last week in Winston-Salem. He can get the job done. Surely UNC will try to air out Louisville at multiple points, but the backbone of the offensive attack needs to lie with Blue. He's the multi-faceted back, along with Morris, that gives the Tar Heels the depth at running back to have a realistic chance against a good team like Louisville even without a talent like Bernard.
BLOCK A PUNT
One of the hallmarks of the Fedora Era at Southern Miss was a relentless punt unit that got after opposing punters and made huge plays. Carolina could sure use one such play Saturday. Louisville's offense is going to get its yardage and probably get its points, but they're also going to have to punt some as we all know. UNC hasn't done a great job in recent years, especially on the road, of flipping field position on defense, and today is a great opportunity to demonstrate Fedora's new-found significance on punt blocking.
Should UNC block a Louisville punt, they'll likely be looking at a short field for the offense, while also sucking the air out of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, which proved to be a hellacious venue the last time the Tar Heels played there in 2005. For Carolina to seize the momentum, few things could be more effective that a well-timed punt block.