Wake Forest and North Carolina renew its 120-plus year-old football rivalry Saturday afternoon in Winston-Salem. The last time UNC opened ACC play at Wake Forest was back in 2000 and they prevailed, but the last time the Tar Heels played in Winston-Salem in 2007 they were on the wrong end of a beatdown.
What will be the keys for North Carolina on Saturday to get this important victory and improve to 2-0?
The Tar Heels opened the season in such precise fashion during a 62-0 victory against Elon that no matter how much the desire to continue playing at such a level exists, it will be a challenge to match it against Wake Forest. How well Carolina practiced this week will tell the tale on Saturday.
If UNC can increase the tempo on offense, get more people to the ball on defense and replicate the performance of its special teams, there is a great opportunity for Carolina to win this football game. And going 2-0 overall and 1-0 in the ACC would be a start to build confidence and provide valuable experience for the younger players.
Think Michael Campanaro isn't critical to Wake Forest's success winning at home? Try this on for size. In last year's three ACC wins at BB&T Field over N.C. State, Florida State, and Maryland, Campanaro combined to make 16 catches for 233 yards (just over 78 yards per game), and the former high school quarterback also threw a pair of touchdown passes, one each in the N.C. State (40 yards) and Florida State (30 yards) contests. But in Wake's home defeat to Virginia Tech he had just 37 yards on five catches, and in the regular season finale against Vanderbilt he was held to 45 yards on six catches, failing to complete a pass in either ball game.
Campanaro provides an extra weapon in Wake Forest's offensive arsenal---a 'flanker' capable of serving as a deep downfield threat and closer to the line of scrimmage in a variety of ways, while also capable of throwing the occasional pass or even running the ball (although last season he had just two carries). With Wake looking to expand and do more offensively this week coming off last week's bland performance against Liberty, Campanaro could do a lot of things against UNC.
There's little doubt that Campanaro is going to get targeted early and often by Tanner Price, and he's going to make his catches. But the Tar Heels have to do a little better than they did last year against him in Chapel Hill, when he had 88 yards (second-most for him in the regular season last fall). Keeping Campanaro from making a big play, either catching it or throwing it, can severely limit Wake Forest and make them significantly less capable.
Tackling is a key element for any defense. Whoever gets to the football first on Saturday against the Deacons needs to wrap the ballcarrier with both arms and get that person started toward the turf. In turn, the tackler's Tar Heel teammates must run from wherever they are and attack with a vicious ferocity.
Much has been said about this being a new era for the Tar Heels. Part of this fresh start for North Carolina needs to be a fundamentally sound group of players on defense, teammates who become known for their intensity and the viciousness with which they tackle. This doesn't mean making stupid penalties by jumping on the pile after the whistle has clearly blown or spearing the ballcarrier. Those problems can be avoided with intelligent play. But Bobby Bowden's saying of hitting until the "echo of the whistle" remains good advice for any defense looking to make a name and accomplish measurable goals.
Tanner Price, Wake Forest's confident and capable quarterback, is perhaps more so than any other signal-caller in the ACC a product of his environment. Last fall he threw 20 touchdown passes against just six interceptions, but three of those picks came in Kenan Stadium as the Tar Heels relentlessly attacked him all afternoon last fall when Wake came to town.
A skilled playmaker and keen decision-maker (most of the time), Price can light a team up when left alone in the pocket and moving around when the playbook calls for it, and not when he's having to elude pressure.
Unfortunately for Wake Forest, it's the latter that's the problem right now as the Demon Deacons merge together a completely new offensive line with just one returning starter (center Garrick Williams) from a year ago. For UNC, it's a no-brainer to get after Price from the opening kickoff to the final gun. Make his life miserable, and make his comrades up front miserable with varying blitzes coming from all over the place, and well-masked to avoid giving it away.
Price will complete more passes than he doesn't complete and it's unlikely he'll throw three interceptions again, but UNC needs to avoid letting him have the big game---the 300-plus yard passing game that he attained just once a year ago against ACC doormat Maryland. If Price is running around for his life unable to spot his targets and move the offense around at his pace, Wake Forest is in big trouble.
STAY IN POSSESSION
On offense, the chief objective each week should be avoiding turnovers. As much as the Carolina defense will be trying to generate takeaways at every opportunity, the offense has to play smart and protect the ball. The speed with which the offense plays could make this tougher, but nonetheless this is a goal UNC should strive to achieve. Runners must hold the ball high and tight, making ball security a part of their routine as if it were an element of their being such as breathing or seeing.
Bryn Renner is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league, but the strength of his arm can sometimes tempt him to get the ball into such tight places it leads to interceptions. There are so many talented skill players on the field with Renner that he can avoid this temptation and still make plenty of positive plays. Turnovers are going to occur for any team. The overriding ambition will be to keep them to a minimum.
WORK ON WHITLOCK
Wake Forest's best defensive lineman---and one of the team's most valuable contributors---is veteran Nikita Whitlock. And it's really a remarkable thing---a throwback to a bygone era.
A lot of people think Whitlock shouldn't be playing as well as he is in the ACC at the position he's playing. He looks like a linebacker but his outstanding combination of strength, athleticism, and low center of gravity makes him a blocking nightmare at times. Whitlock is a guy that can go around you as well as through or under you if he needs to, and he could be a genuine pain for UNC center Russell Bodine and guards Travis Bond and Jonathan Cooper.
To establish an interior running game and attain total control of the line of scrimmage, the Tar Heels have to deal with this Whitlock problem. Bodine will be shaded on him all day and Cooper and Bond have to give him a hand. If Whitlock is neutralized and the line can attend to what will be a flurry of blitzing from Wake's four linebackers from varying angles, UNC can get the ground game going and make this an uphill battle for the Deacs.
KICKOFF FIELD POSITION
Kickoffs went well for UNC against Elon. Time and again, Casey Barth placed the ball near the goal line in a corner of the field so the coverage team could converge on the return man and keep the field position in favor of UNC. Elon averaged 17.4 yards per kickoff return. If the Tar Heels can maintain that throughout the season, and in this game against Wake Forest, they will have a head-start toward stopping their opponents.
Barth needs to be calm, collected and ready to boom the ball downfield to keep Wake Forest pinned back behind its own 20 and 30-yard line starting drives as much as possible. Ideally of course he'd put it in the end zone for a touchback, but even if that's not possible every time the UNC coverage unit needs to race down there and swarm the return man.
Larry Fedora does a lot to emphasize the kicking game. Many coaches talk about it, but it is clear he sets a precedent with his team that should keep them focused on trying to be excellent, regardless of which part of special teams the Tar Heels are executing at the moment.
NO BIG PLAYS IN PUNTING GAME
The last time UNC came to Winston-Salem back in 2007 they allowed Kenny Moore to break the game open with a punt return touchdown. That can't happen today for the Tar Heels to establish the road game momentum that they are hoping to build over the course of this game. One play like that can energize Wake's fans and screw up a quarter or even a half of solid play.
For Carolina to control this game from both a momentum and field position standpoint, they simply must neutralize Wake's ability to spring a big play through sound fundamentals and executed assignments in punt coverage. Lanes must be thoroughly covered and nobody needs to try and be a hero and leave a gap that can be compromised. Everyone needs to do their individual job and get after it in this regard. Keeping Wake's offense pinned back, needing to go 70 or more yards on a drive to score, is paramount to UNC's overall mission.
NEGATIVE PLAYS ON D
UNC played a vanilla version of its defense against Elon, but that will change to some degree against the Deacons. The Tar Heels are almost sure to blitz more, given the objective of this defense is to attack and create negative yardage. The more negative plays Carolina can generate throughout the afternoon, the more confidence the Tar Heels should gain and then utilize to stop the Deacons, and the more three-and-outs Wake will have and the more times they'll have to punt it back to Carolina.
It would be unrealistic to think UNC could shut out Wake Forest the way it did Elon, but there is no reason to think the Tar Heels cannot make it hard for the Deacons to move the ball with consistent success. Carolina will rotate enough players to keep them fresh, and the scheme should yield some big plays on defense. Wake Forest is going to be a much different team in terms of talent and method. If UNC can generate three turnovers and all but stop the Deacons' running game, Carolina will have a huge jump start toward winning this game.
Wake Forest will show up ready to play this football game. Their fans will be ready to cheer. This is a huge game for both teams not only in the ACC standings, but from the perception of the so-called 'state championship' and getting North Carolina back in position to consistently, year in and year out, dominate its local conference rivals.
To that end, the Tar Heel players need to step out on the BB&T Field turf Saturday afternoon with a chip on their collective shoulder. They need to know that Wake Forest is going to give them their best shot---a shot that past UNC teams' often didn't have the stomach to withstand. This UNC team gets its first true test of the year against a team that knows it can beat them.
Execution and playmaking so often in football goes hand-in-hand with having that right attitude---that perfectly fine line between anger, fear, confidence and arrogance---to take the field and play. If UNC has that attitude and can maintain it, they're probably going to win this football game. But if Wake shows it more readily and consistently, it could be tough sledding.