North Carolina (4-2, 1-1 in the ACC) will play a dangerous team this week on the road. Notre Dame humbled Miami (4-2, 3-0) a week ago.
For anyone to assume the Hurricanes are as poor as last week's 41-3 loss, just remember Miami scored more than 40 points in all three ACC victories, and the Hurricanes are equally capable of doing it against the Tar Heels. UNC will have to build on its previous accomplishments and perform its assignments to win this one. The game will kick off at 2:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU.
PLAY WITH POISE
In the Tar Heels' two away games this season, UNC lost its poise and lost the games. They were lethargic in the first half against Louisville and got steamrolled, while they never could seal the deal in the second half of what should have been a victory at Wake Forest. This road game at Miami will be a test for Carolina in many different ways, but poise will be right at the top of the list. Notre Dame hammered the Hurricanes last weekend, but Miami is capable of being explosive on any given weekend.
Let's say the Hurricanes score first, the way Virginia Tech did at Kenan Stadium last Saturday. Can UNC answer like they did against the Hokies? Sean Tapley answered right back with a kickoff return for a touchdown to tie the game and send an immediate jolt of adrenaline through the rest of his teammates. Once that occurred, it was the Tar Heels who blew past the Hokies and Virginia Tech that got rattled. Handling adversity and keeping their poise will make a difference in this game for the team that does it better.
The name Phillip Dorsett will ring a bell not only to hard-core ACC football fans, but also folks who have been keeping up with UNC's football recruiting over the past several years. The previous Tar Heel regime made a strong go at Dorsett, Giovani Bernard's former prep teammate at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas, but of course Dorsett went on to Miami where he's flourishing. Heading into this week's contest, Dorsett is ranked in the top ten in the ACC in receptions (29), yardage (470), and punt return average (6.9 ypr).
For the Tar Heels, winning this particular game will be much easier if they can figure out a way to keep Dorsett from going off. It's easier said than done (ask N.C. State, who couldn't contain him in the second half), as Dorsett has become the focal point of Miami's passing game under the reign of current quarterback Stephen Morris. If UNC can keep Dorsett to a below-average game in terms of yardage and keep him out of the end zone, the odds go up significantly that Carolina will leave Coral Gables with the win.
Carolina had one quarterback sack against Virginia Tech, but the Tar Heels did put a great deal of pressure on Hokies' QB Logan Thomas throughout the afternoon. It is vital to pressure Morris, who leads the ACC in passing yards per game (306) and is second in total offense per game (313.5 ypg). He's a mobile, dynamic quarterback that has shown he can throw on the run, but that's better for UNC than letting him sit in the pocket and eat you alive. Make him restless, make him play on the run, and you've got a better chance of slowing him down.
One way to defend a prolific QB such as Morris is hit him hard and often. The hits do not have to be sacks. Getting there one step too late for the sack but in time to drill Morris could take a toll on him as the day progresses. He has thrown nine touchdown passes and four interceptions. UNC could add to his turnover count by making him feel the pressure and rush his throws.
GIVE IT TO GIO
This should probably be a regular staple of our weekly 10 Keys features as long as No. 26 is playing for the Tar Heels, but this week in particular it's critical that Carolina get the ball to their star and let him do his thing. Coming off a week in which UNC tallied the third-most yardage on the ground ever against Virginia Tech (339), the Tar Heels now face a Miami defense that has been shredded so far this season.
The 'Canes rank dead last in the ACC in total defense, allowing a whopping 510 yards per game, and against the run they're ranked eleventh (behind only Boston College), allowing opponents to rush for an average of 250.7 yards per outing (1,504 yards in total over six games) while allowing an astonishing 19 rushing touchdowns, one of the highest totals in the entire nation. One glance at those stats should have Bernard, Larry Fedora, and Blake Anderson licking their chops at what might be possible on Saturday.
You never want to go into a game overconfident and not respecting your opponent---and UNC hasn't been either this week---but the fact remains that this appears on paper to be a tremendously positive matchup for Bernard as well as fellow UNC backs A.J. Blue and Romar Morris. If Carolina comes anywhere close to that 250 rushing yards number, they're going to have an excellent chance of winning, especially if they don't turn the ball over.
The Tar Heels have gotten more efficient at moving quickly on offense each Saturday. Coach Larry Fedora said one of the most important groups to adjust has been the offensive line. Rather than complain about fatigue, the offensive linemen are now urging the coaches to hurry the pace as much as possible. They see the effect the fast pace has on defenses, how it wears those players down and helps the line do its job.
Miami has excellent athletes, but the Hurricanes' big defensive linemen are used to the standard tempo, with huddles and time to catch their breath between plays. If UNC can move quickly and make plays consistently, they can wear those big boys down and score points in bunches as they have been doing throughout the season.
DON'T PUT IT ON THE GROUND
While UNC has a chance to have a field day running the football against this meager Miami run defense, the one thing that could derail the whole show is a slew of untimely turnovers. On the whole UNC has done a solid job protecting the ball so far this season, as they currently lead the ACC with a plus-five turnover margin (14 forced turnovers against nine allowed, four interceptions and five lost fumbles). Carolina needs to keep up this ball protection and not give away the ball to the 'Canes, thereby nullifying a potential scoring drive while giving them back the ball with a little bit of confidence.
If Carolina doesn't turn the ball over at all, they'll win this football game. You watch. Miami's defense is allowing on average over 26 first downs per game, and it's highly unlikely that number will decrease if UNC doesn't turn the ball over. Of course they're going to be in position to have a chance to win even if they do turn it over once or twice, but if they manage to keep from giving Miami a free takeaway through a lost fumble, the Hurricanes will have to line up and beat the Tar Heels defensively---something they really haven't done all year against quality opponents. UNC's offensive line is talented enough to push this group around, so all the Tar Heel backs need to do is make sure they don't cough the ball up and keep Miami in the game.
UNC committed 15 penalties for 126 yards in losses against Virginia Tech. This does not account for the loss of positive plays, such as significant gains wiped out by holding calls. The Tar Heels won the game in impressive fashion, despite committing those penalties.
To continue to get away with such infractions and still win means the efficiency of the offense in scoring and the defense in getting off the field without allowing scores rises to a premium. To think Carolina is going to move as fast as it does on offense without a motion penalty or jumping offside on occasion is not realistic. But paying even greater attention to keeping the penalties to a minimum will make defending the Tar Heels all that much more difficult.
DON'T LET JOHNSON BEAT YOU
Miami has a talented freshman running back in Duke Johnson, who has 381 rushing yards and five touchdowns so far this fall. He's in the top ten in the ACC in scoring, and with seven total touchdowns, he's in the top five in that category as well. UNC has stepped up its run defense ever since the first half meltdown at Louisville, and they've been pretty darn good in this area for approximately a month now. They were particularly strong against Virginia Tech, holding the Hokies under 50 yards on the ground---a remarkable statistic.
Things could get hairy for Carolina if they slip up and allow Johnson to have a big game. While he's not dominating the way Bernard is, he is averaging a healthy 6.3 yards per carry, and he's the kind of guy that can break a big one if you give him enough space. As they've done all season, UNC is going to try to take away this element for Miami and make the 'Canes one-dimensional, and if they do, it's going to make it an uphill battle for the home team.
Fedora promised special teams that would attack and make positive plays, and the team has delivered on this promise. Every coach pays lip service to special teams, but so far this is the most consistent and productive I can recall any UNC team playing on special teams in 25 years of covering Carolina football. The Tar Heels have been blocking punts, returning kicks for big plays, covering kicks well and generally dominating in this key phase of the game, which has been huge.
Miami has a solid tradition of making big plays in the kicking game as well, so it will be important to continue being productive this week. A blocked punt or a big return for a score or a return that sets up a score by the offense could very well be the difference in this game.
KEEP MIAMI'S OFFENSE OFF THE FIELD
Neither UNC nor Miami are exactly doing well in the time of possession category, and part of that's due to the fact that both teams are trying to score so quickly. In fact, Miami is the only team in the ACC that is averaging less offensive time of possession than North Carolina (the 'Canes are averaging 24:52 offensive possession per game, the Tar Heels 27:06). The fact it's a 60 minute game means that both teams will likely increase their time of possession, and North Carolina needs to make sure its the team with the ball more than Miami.
In so many ways, winning time of possession against Miami is critical. Not only does it give UNC potential to wear down the Miami defense over the course of the game, but it can help keep the Hurricane offense from doing the same thing to the Tar Heels. Furthermore, by winning the all-important time of possession battle, UNC can ensure that Miami isn't sustaining as many drives, thereby probably not scoring as many points. Simply put, by winning the time of possession battle, UNC can put itself in position to attain strategic control on both sides of the ball, and that's going to be tough to overcome.