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10 Keys: UNC vs. ECU

What are the keys for victory Saturday night for North Carolina as they head to Greenville for an 8:00 kickoff against in-state rival East Carolina?
Our '10 Keys' feature provides this week's breakdown of the battle between the Tar Heels and Pirates that can be seen on the CBS College Sports Network Saturday evening.
There's no question that Saturday night's atmosphere in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is going to be raucous. Pirate fans will have had all day to get themselves energized and pumped up for the game, and many of them will bring their alcohol-infused hatred of the Tar Heels out in full force.
UNC prepared for this all week by simulating crowd noise in practice, but it's not quite the same as hearing just how loud Dowdy-Ficklen gets when the Pirate faithful is up on its feet and screaming.
This is going to be Bryn Renner's first test in a truly hostile road environment. Sure, Georgia Tech wasn't exactly Kenan Stadium, but Yellow Jacket fans are stately by comparison to Pirate fans. And that's not a knock on some of the most passionate fans you'll find in college football. ECU unquestionably creates a much less cozy environment for opposing teams in Greenville than they do down in Atlanta.
For UNC to win, they have to work through this particular unique nuance of this game. They obviously can't control the crowd volume, but they have to play through it. It's absolutely essential that the communication between the quarterback and center is sound through all the noise, lest they give ECU a freebie by putting the ball on the ground. The Tar Heel defense needs to use its hand signals and work with each other to make sure they're all on the same page.
This is one area of this particular game where right off the bat East Carolina has a big advantage. The question is will UNC allow the Pirates to have this advantage all night, or will they progressively quiet the crowd and have them leaving early if they make plays and execute?
Committing two turnovers was in so many ways 'victory kryptonite' for Carolina last week against Georgia Tech. You simply can't give the Yellow Jackets that many extra opportunities with the way they control possession. Although East Carolina's offensive system is different by leaps and bounds compared to Georgia Tech's, the fundamental concept of protecting the football remains the same. With the way the Pirates spread the field and move the ball around, they're capable of doing plenty of damage.
Keep in mind that ECU led South Carolina 17-0 earlier this year when they played in Charlotte. The Gamecocks lost two fumbles early in that particular contest, which allowed the Pirates to build their early advantage (which they subsequently squandered after getting outscored by South Carolina 42-13 in the second half).
It's time for Renner to get back to some of the things he was doing earlier in the season and try his best to avoid throwing an interception. If he does make a single mistake and throw a poor pass into coverage that gets picked, make it just one. UNC simply cannot afford to get into another game where multiple interceptions flips field position and gives the opposing offense extra scoring opportunities.
North Carolina has the offensive firepower to make his a miserable night for an East Carolina defense still learning the 3-4 that has really struggled at times to slow down opposing teams. Virginia Tech and South Carolina did what they wanted when they weren't giving the ball away to East Carolina---and UNC can do the same. But they can't do the Pirates any favors.
With little doubt, this is the biggest game on East Carolina's schedule this entire season. The opportunity to hand North Carolina a second straight loss in Greenville and just the third ECU victory ever over the Tar Heels would be like an early Christmas present to the Pirate coaches, fans, and players. As such, the Pirates are going to come out fired up and extremely spirited. Their players are going to be eager and looking for ways to motivate themselves, which could manifest into some of the typical jawing out on the field that we often see in college games, as well as expressions of exuberance when they make good plays---expressions that can often rub opposing players the wrong way.
For North Carolina, the key is going to be not to get baited into anything because of East Carolina's attempts to keep themselves fired up. Football is a game of emotion, and although on paper the Tar Heels have considerably more talent than East Carolina, a certain level of emotion can take a football team a long way. UNC has to match ECU's intensity and come out charged up themselves.
While it's not an ACC contest, this game is absolutely huge for Everett Withers, as its hard to see him realistically being a candidate for the permanent head coaching job at UNC after this season if he can't beat East Carolina. For the players, it's essential not to be goaded into any unnecessary penalties due to East Carolina trash talk. These games are always a little chippy because ECU puts such a tremendous emphasis on this game. But since it's mostly the guy who retaliates who gets called for the penalty, UNC has to make sure they keep their heads and don't get baited into anything.
North Carolina's play calling inside the 20 yard line---both offensively and defensively---needs to be crisp tonight. The Tar Heels, despite some criticisms of the defensive play-calling this fall by some, have been fairly solid in the red zone. This season teams are just six-of-14 (43 percent) scoring touchdowns inside the red zone on the Tar Heels, and that needs to continue against the Pirates. Conversely, the UNC offense has scored touchdowns on 12 of its 14 red zone possessions this fall.
John Shoop has done a solid job of getting multiple players besides the wide receivers the ball, as non-wide receivers have made a combined 31 catches for the Tar Heels this season. Most of those have gone to Giovani Bernard, and since everyone knows the Pirates are going to be keying on Bernard out of the backfield in the red zone, Shoop might be able to catch ECU off-guard once or twice by throwing to him instead of handing the ball off.
But clearly when UNC gets in the red zone, it's more important to tighten the screws on the Pirates and churn up real estate with a power running game.
East Carolina's offense---especially when it gets around the goal line---employs a lot of 'fade' routes, which are intended to make it extremely difficult for opposing defenses to make plays on the ball because of the ball's location in the corner or edge of the end zone. The Tar Heels themselves have used this particular play to great success at times in the past---think T.J. Yates' touchdown toss to Jheranie Boyd in the Virginia Tech game back in 2009.
For the Tar Heel defensive backs, and especially cornerbacks Tre Boston, Charles Brown, Tim Scott, and Jabari Price, it's going to be important to play strong against these 'fade' routes. Jamming the opposing receiver at the line of scrimmage certainly helps, but it's also important not to give the ECU receivers too much space between where they line up and the sideline. The more space between the defender and the sideline means more space for the quarterback to hit his mark. So the Tar Heels need to be physical with ECU's receivers, while also limiting the space they have to work along the edges of the field.
East Carolina knows full-well that UNC is going to try and get Dwight Jones the football. And considering Jones has as many catches as UNC's leading receiver (27) than Carolina's second and third-leading receivers combined, it makes sense to try and limit his opportunities as much as possible. Even that won't work against a talent like Jones, who is sure to get open and make plays, but the point is that the respect East Carolina shows to Jones through rolling coverages could open some other things up.
We suspect that UNC might take a couple of chances to run the end-around play Saturday night with players like Jheranie Boyd, Reggie Wilkins, or T.J. Thorpe. And in the case of Wilkins or another former high school quarterback like A.J. Blue who could potentially get the ball on such a play, there's always the possibility of an 'end-around halfback pass.'
UNC tried similar plays twice against Virginia---one worked and one didn't---and depending on the defensive schemes of the Pirates and just how much attention they pay to Jones, we wouldn't be surprised in the least if Carolina runs another similar play or plays.
Carolina may not need a big play on an end-around to win Saturday night's contest, but such a play could definitely point things in the right direction. And the ability to be diverse offensively while utilizing the speed of players like Boyd, Wilkins, Thorpe, or Blue could be a real ace up Coach Shoop's sleeve.
Given East Carolina's propensity to throw the football, we fully expect UNC to spend a lot of time in the 'nickel' package Saturday night. The 'nickel' package essentially means a fifth defensive back is on the field to replace one of the outside linebackers, theoretically giving the defense an extra defensive back capable of running with a receiver in multi-WR sets and giving the defense a better chance of avoiding a big play through the air.
But it's not just about avoiding giving up the big play.
When UNC goes into the 'nickel' Saturday night---whoever that player might be, whether it's Todd Harrelson, Jabari Price, Tim Scott, Alex Dixon or whoever else---they have to be able to be responsive to shorter, three-step routes that ECU is surely going to run in order to limit the effectiveness of Carolina's pass rush off the edge with Quinton Coples, Donte Paige-Moss, Tim Jackson, and Kareem Martin.
ECU quarterback Dominique Davis remembers the last two seasons getting harassed by the pressure of the Tar Heel front four, and rest assured the Pirate coaches have taken a look at last year's film and devised ways to try and give Davis more time to throw. The easiest answer? Don't leave him in the pocket with longer drop-steps.
With this in mind, Carolina's 'nickel' back has to be able to see when such plays are developing. If timed just right, this could very well lead to a key interception---even an interception that could be returned for a touchdown.
While it's absolutely essential for any 'nickel' package to stay focused on keeping the opposing wide receivers in front of them to avoid the long pass plays, it's also self-defeating to play so softly away from the line of scrimmage to open up shorter pass plays. How well the UNC nickel backs respond to ECU's efforts to employ the short passing game will go a long way in determining how effective the Pirate offense will be.
Bottom line for North Carolina---Bernard has a good game, Carolina probably wins tonight. If he doesn't, all bets are off.
East Carolina's rush defense has been suspect so far this fall, to say the least. The one thing is that ECU has faced good competition, but they haven't yet shown ability to successfully neutralize good offenses on the ground. South Carolina lined up and ran for 220 yards against the Pirates resistance, while Virginia Tech did even better, accumulating over 230 yards of rushing offense.
Carolina had a golden opportunity last week to play offensively against a tough 3-4 scheme at Georgia Tech, and that should only serve to help the UNC blockers as they prepare to face the 3-4 again.
For UNC the objective is simple. Without wearing him down, let Bernard do his thing. Give him the ball on the outside, and then feel free to come back between the tackles. While it's a little discouraging not to see more of an emphasis on using all three running backs---talking about Bernard, Ryan Houston, and A.J. Blue---Bernard is clearly earning his carries.
Carolina can win handily over East Carolina if UNC rushes for over 200 yards and doesn't turn the ball over. But those are two questionable 'ifs.' The Tar Heels have committed nine turnovers over its last three games, although certainly one can't lay that blame at Bernard's feet.
The point is that Bernard could have a monster game against the Pirates if everything falls into place. The matchup, the past performances of Bernard, everything points to him having a nice performance tonight---at least over 100 yards. But if Bernard really blows up with a huge outing against ECU, it could send a message to a lot of people who didn't already know that North Carolina once again has a big-time running back.
Carolina's offensive line, coming off a game in which the Tar Heels allowed seven sacks, has to be pretty fired up for Saturday night. This is a great chance to let go of that subpar performance and get back on track. East Carolina runs the same 3-4 scheme as Georgia Tech, but aside of a couple of solid linebackers, this unit just isn't as talented as the Yellow Jackets.
UNC should feel confident that it can line up and win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football tonight. Although East Carolina can make some things happen offensively, their offensive line is going to have its hands full in the middle with Sylvester Williams and Tydreke Powell. This is why we suspect ECU will implement some shorter-drop routes for the quarterbacks and receivers.
Along those same lines, UNC's veteran offensive line should like its chances of having more success in the running game given the way Bernard has been running the ball lately. The Tar Heels have had ample opportunity to study East Carolina, and we believe that UNC will make an effort, particularly early on, to establish the run while using it to potentially set up a big play through the air.
On both sides of the ball, Carolina can take strategic control of the game by getting it done in the trenches. That holds true for every football game most of the time, but it bears repeating.
This sort of goes hand-in-hand with not committing turnovers or stupid penalties, but the truth of the matter is that UNC can't afford to make anything easier for East Carolina than it already is. They'll already have the benefit of a highly-supportive home crowd. The Pirate players will be extremely spirited---especially early on as the residual pre-game hype melts itself down.
For Carolina, there's absolutely nothing good that's going to come out of committing penalties or by doing things that give East Carolina extra opportunities to score. That can be fanned out into an array of things the Tar Heels need to avoid. Interceptions and lost fumbles are a given. Trying to keep away from mindless penalties is another. So is staying focused on the specific schemes and plays at hand and not deviating from them to open up an opportunity for ECU to exploit it.
From a purely talent perspective, North Carolina is the better of these two teams. But they still have to go out and play. ECU is dangerous in a lot of ways for Carolina because they're playing at home, they've already played very tough competition in South Carolina and Virginia Tech, and most of all, they take the UNC game more seriously than arguably any other on their calendar. UNC doesn't have to worry whether or not the Pirates will show up ready to play. But Carolina can't fall into the trap of poor execution and mental lapses. If they do, it could make the evening much, much longer than it has to be.