North Carolina takes the field at Kenan Stadium for the final time Saturday against soon-to-be former conference rival Maryland. With the Terrapins set to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference after the 2013 season, this could be the last time that Maryland plays in Chapel Hill for quite some time.
In our final pregame preview of the season, we take a closer look at what North Carolina (7-4) needs to do to get this victory over Maryland (4-7) and finish the 2012 season with the schools third eight-win campaign in the last five years.
SLOW DOWN DIGGS
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It's no secret that Stefon Diggs is the heart and soul of Maryland's offense, even as a mere freshman. And on Saturday the Terrapins are going to try to get him the ball in a variety of ways, including traditional routes, bubble screens, and perhaps even the occasional end-around. He's a dynamic playmaker with great speed and the ability to make people miss, and he deserves Carolina's respect.
If North Carolina's secondary can figure out a way to slow Diggs down and make him have a below-average game, UNC will almost certainly win this one. But like Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro, Duke's Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder, and a host of receivers for N.C. State and Georgia Tech who lit up the Tar Heels, Diggs is a guy who can hurt them. He's going to be targeted early and often, and even if UNC rolls coverages his way or out-right double-teams him, he's going to be a priority for the Maryland offense. And if he has a big game Saturday, life could get tough at times for the Tar Heels.
GET AFTER PETTY
It's pretty clear that Maryland's Shawn Petty is an impressive athlete to be moved from linebacker to quarterback, but that still makes him a linebacker who has been converted to a quarterback. UNC fans can relate themselves to past experiences with quarterbacks moved from other positions who weren't highly productive. Who can ever forget Dominique Williams in 1999?. But at the same time, Williams helped UNC beat rivals N.C. State and Duke that year because the Wolfpack and Blue Devils couldn't get a pass rush on him, and the former defensive back had room to maneuver.
For UNC's defense, perhaps no single thing can help keep Maryland in the game than not consistently getting a quality pass rush on Petty. Maryland's offensive line, which has been patchwork and has had as many as five first-time starters, has given up a whopping 38 sacks this fall. That should have guys like Kareem Martin, Sylvester Williams, and even linebackers like Kevin Reddick licking their chops.
If the Tar Heels are able to get after Petty, take him out of his comfort zone and make them beat him with his legs, it's checkmate Carolina. After all, this group of UNC linebackers should be able to chase down a fellow linebacker, right?
PLAY SOUND, FUNDAMENTAL DEFENSE
North Carolina got back to the basics defensively after its humiliating disaster against Georgia Tech, and the result was a complete effort on the road in a Thursday Night win last week at Virginia.
The Tar Heels supported the run, filled gaps, and limited UVa's big plays as they cruised to a 37-13 win. And when the Cavaliers pushed into UNC range, the Tar Heels held twice on critical goal-line stands.
UNC made Virginia's offense look pretty average at times, and it's an offense that averages 412 yards per game---or slightly 140 more yards per game than Maryland.
Simply put, Maryland's offense on the whole isn't very good. Despite the presence of Diggs, a likely future pro, the Terrapins are dead-last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in averaging just 273 yards offensively per game. The injuries that have decimated the quarterback and offensive line positions have rubbed off on the whole unit. The Terps are averaging just 2.4 yards per carry rushing and they rank last or next to last in the league in every major offensive team category, including scoring offense, rush offense, pass offense, and total offense.
While you never want to get cocky or complacent about your ability to go out and beat a team, the statistics tell a picture of a Maryland offense that has been struggling to find an identity and has generally performed at a low level all year. For a Tar Heel defense that has been maddeningly inconsistent this fall, here's a great chance to finish the year with a bang. But it all comes back to fundamentals. Play your responsibility. Make the right reads and don't do anyone else's job. Have a short memory. If things go poorly the play before, make up for it the next play. And don't take any plays off. If UNC's defense follows these basic principles, they've got an excellent chance of having a memorable end-of-season performance on Saturday.
POWER FOOTBALL UP FRONT
While Maryland's offense has been a train wreck this fall, they've been much stronger defensively. In fact Maryland currently ranks second in the ACC in total defense, averaging 322.5 yards per game (more than 60 yards per game fewer than Carolina). This has been aided greatly by the presence of a strong, physical defensive line featuring All-ACC performer Joe Vellano and a former UNC recruit, Darius Kilgo, who has done well in his short time in College Park.
While Vellano and Kilgo present a legitimate challenge up front to the Tar Heels, this is Jonathan Cooper's curtain call at North Carolina. Same goes for Travis Bond. And while the injured Brennan Williams won't be able to take the field in the actual for the last time like Cooper and Bond will, those two seniors are going to want to get this one for No. 73. That also goes for fellow starters James Hurst, Landon Turner, and Russell Bodine.
For Carolina it's pretty simple---win the line of scrimmage, and dominate this Maryland team. The Terps have been hurting at linebacker since Demetrius Hartsfield, another North Carolina native, went down with an injury, and if the Tar Heel linemen can move Vellano and Kilgo and get to the second level, it figures to be in their favor.
If the Tar Heels can consistently pile open holes between the tackles for Giovani Bernard, Romar Morris, and A.J. Blue, it's difficult to imagine Maryland realistically having a chance to win this game. But on the flip side, if Maryland's defensive line holds up and dominates up front, things could be a lot tougher on the Tar Heels and more challenging than they'd hoped for.
PLAY FOR THE SENIORS
Carolina needs to bring a certain amount of emotion and intensity to this game, and not necessarily for themselves if they're underclassmen. They'll get another chance to take the field at Kenan Stadium, but for this collection of UNC seniors, who have been through the wringer and back again during their Tar Heel careers, the younger Carolina players owe it to them to come out determined not to accept anything but total victory.
Guys like Reddick, Cooper, Bond, and even injured players who won't play like Williams and Casey Barth, deserve the adulation of the fans for sticking through the darkest hour in the history of North Carolina's football program. They could have left, moved on to other programs not facing bowl sanctions, but they did UNC proud by hanging around, playing out their careers, and eventually going on to graduate.
It shouldn't be much of a challenge for those guys to get up for this game, but the challenge is for everyone on the Tar Heel roster to rise to this occasion and do whatever it takes emotionally to get themselves ready to go out and take down Maryland for these guys taking the field for the final time in Chapel Hill.
For the fans and the non-seniors on the UNC football team, it's not unfair to say that the Tar Heel seniors deserve their respect and intensity on this final gameday of 2012. It would be easy to dismiss this otherwise insignificant football game as the last roadblock on the way to UNC's hopeful eventual quest to claim the ACC Coastal Division, but for these Tar Heel seniors, there wont be any other days to run through that tunnel and bask in the glow of a Carolina Blue sky on that field.
Saturday can be a memorable day for Tar Heel nation if the UNC players come out absolutely willful not to allow themselves to drop this game.