Breakin’ It Down: Miami

The North Carolina football team has scratched and clawed its way back to a .500 record overall and in the ACC. In the crowded Coastal division of the ACC, that’s good enough to have the Tar Heels back in the thick of it. Last week’s thrilling 28-27 win at Virginia gives UNC a ton of confidence, considering the offense sputtered for most of the second half.

But the going doesn’t get any easier. The Miami Hurricanes seem to be finding their form at just the right time. The Hurricanes completely dismantled the Virginia Tech Hokies 30-6 in their last contest. At 5-3 overall and 2-2 in conference play, Miami head coach Al Golden has his sights firmly set on his first ACC Championship game appearance.

Not much has separated these two schools on the gridiron. The Tar Heels narrowly lead the all-time series 9-8, and the two programs have battled to a 5-5 draw in their 10 games as ACC members since 2004. Last year, the Canes snuck past the Heels 27-23 in Chapel Hill.

Offense

Carolina’s offense isn’t always consistent, but it’s a big play machine. Overall, the Tar Heels recorded four touchdowns of 50-plus yards during their previous two games. The emergence of walk-on Mack Hollins, who was named ACC Receiver of the Week, has been rewarding as well. With a bevy of talented playmakers at junior quarterback Marquise Williams’ disposal, the Tar Heels are tough to stop. When they’re firing on all cylinders, UNC is one of the premier offenses in the nation.

As for Miami, everything is driven by star running back Duke Johnson. The junior has scored a touchdown in seven straight games and has accounted for 35 first downs in the past five outings. His motor never stops and now, he’s seeing the running lanes with more clarity. That’s scary news for the Tar Heel defenders! Even more encouraging for the Canes is the development of their freshman signal caller Brad Kaaya. He’s played with more poise and control in the past couple contests. If that continues, the sky’s the limit for the Miami attack.

EDGE: UNC

Defense

I feel like a broken record every week with the UNC defense. They’re improving, yes. But they’re still not very good. They give up way too many big plays in both the running and passing game. The Tar Heels have surrendered a shocking 512.8 yards per game, which places them sixth worst in the nation. But despite all this, the Tar Heels show flashes of life in the form of timely turnovers like last week’s game-changing interception by Nazair Jones.

It’s hard to figure out this Miami defense. Sometimes, like last week at Virginia Tech, they’re dominant, but other times, like at Nebraska earlier in the season, they struggle mightily. Linebacker Denzel Perryman stands out. He’s somebody the UNC coaching staff has to game plan for. Perryman has recorded 42 solo tackles already in 2014. The Hurricanes rank fourth in the ACC in total defense, but have been prone to giving up explosive plays, especially off teh ground. Which Miami defense will show up on Saturday? It’s anybody’s guess.

EDGE: Miami

Special Teams/Intangibles

The Tar Heels rank near the top of the conference in most special teams categories, but are still searching for some magic in the return game. Dangerous return men Ryan Switzer and TJ Logan have yet to take one the distance. Will this be the game?

The Hurricanes always have scary speed at the skill positions and have been fairly solid in the kicking game all season. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, their home crowds leave plenty to be desired. The Canes fans do not show up in great numbers and therefore, Sun Life Stadium is not a raucous atmosphere despite Miami’s improving form. The 12:30 kickoff won’t help with that home field advantage either.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

The betting line on this game sits at -17 in favor of Miami. I had to do a double-take when I saw that spread. Yes, UNC is an underdog, but not that kind of underdog. But, alas, I’m picking this one straight up.

I think this game will be entertaining, as they usually tend to be when these two Coastal rivals square off. With so much on the line, the team that makes the fewer mistakes and takes care of the football best will likely emerge the winner. In addition, red zone efficiency will be critical. UNC is second behind only FSU in that conference statistic.

So the pressure will be on Miami to match them. Kaaya will need to take advantage of every possession and not settle for field goals. If he’s able to avoid costly turnovers against an opportunistic Tar Heel defense and put the ball in the end zone early and often, the Canes are in good shape. Luckily for him, at home, the Hurricanes have thrived, scoring in bunches.

UNC’s Williams and Hollins will engineer plenty of explosive plays, but the hungry Hurricanes will be able to come up with a few more stops and find a way to escape with the crucial victory.

Miami 41, UNC 38

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

IMG_2561-0.JPG

Posted in NCAA Athletics, Picks, Tar Heel fball | Leave a comment

Breakin’ It Down: Virginia

Last week, the 3-4 North Carolina football team earned its first ACC win of 2014 with a thrilling 48-43 victory over Georgia Tech. Despite a four-game losing streak, somehow, the Tar Heels still remain alive in the wide open Coastal division.

Virginia comes in with a 4-3 record and 2-1 mark in the ACC. The Cavaliers squandered a golden opportunity to seize control of the Coastal last weekend in Durham, falling to Duke 20-13. And with a brutal schedule ahead of them that includes games at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State, the Wahoos understand the significance of Saturday’s 12:30 matchup in the ‘South’s Oldest Rivalry’.

Two of the oldest and most prestigious public universities in the nation will face off for their 119th meeting. Carolina leads the all-time series with Virginia 60-54-4

Offense

The UNC offense is rolling. Marquise Williams’ dual-threat ability, in particular, has been beautiful to watch the past couple weeks against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The last two weeks, Carolina has played in the highest scoring game in Notre Dame Stadium history and the most total offense yards in Kenan Stadium history.

Playing the best football of his career, Williams enters this week ranking 17th in total offense at 318 yards per game. What’s more, in a welcome development for head coach Larry Fedora and staff, the Tar Heels received valuable contributions from running back T.J. Logan against Georgia Tech. If the ground game can get going, it will make this already potent UNC attack all the more impossible to stop.

As for the Cavaliers, they rely heavily on senior running back Kevin Parks. Parks is one of the premier backs in the ACC and always runs hard. He’ll certainly be a handful for the Tar Heel defenders.

As for the quarterback position, in the past three games, UVA head coach Mike London has gone with Matt Johns. He’s been struggling with his accuracy and even more so, with his execution in the red zone. Last week, the Cavalier offense’s inability to get the ball in the end zone for touchdowns cost them big-time against the Blue Devils. We know the Wahoos should experience more success against a porous UNC secondary, but will UVA convert enough scoring opportunities into 6 points when the field shrinks on them?

EDGE: UNC

Defense

The Tar Heels are steadily improving week-to-week. I know the scoreboard hasn’t necessarily shown it, but greater defensive energy and more pressure being applied up front has been noticeable in recent weeks. Even more encouraging for the Tar Heels is their ability, so far, to force key turnovers. But missed tackling and a porous secondary can still double-team to give up disastrous big plays for the Tar Heels at inopportune times. Let’s be honest, UNC ranks dead last in the ACC in scoring defense, averaging giving up north of 40 points each game. But thankfully for UNC, Virginia’s offense doesn’t have the kind of firepower they’ve been facing for most of 2014.

Virginia, on the other hand, finds its identity in its stingy defense. The Cavaliers are ninth in total defense when playing FBS competition, and few teams attack the quarterback better. The Wahoos have 22 sacks, which ranks 12th in the country. Against a young UNC offensive line, expect the Virginia defensive linemen to win plenty of one-on-one battles in the trenches. The key for the Cavaliers, though, will be whether they are able to force turnovers and set up a short field for the offense.

EDGE: UVA

Special Teams/Intangibles

The Tar Heels pride themselves in solid special teams. So far, their kickoff return coverage has been sublime, leading the ACC and placing 10th in the nation. Their field goal kicking, meanwhile, remains a question mark with new addition Nick Weiler’s longest field goal being under 25 yards. What’s more, Coach Fedora is still waiting on that game-changing play from his shifty sparkplug Ryan Switzer in the return game.

The Cavaliers are solid, but not spectacular in the third phase of the game. However, if the game comes down to a field goal, UVA has to like their chances more than UNC. Ian Frye hasn’t missed a field goal inside 40 yards the entire season, booting a perfect 10/10. The home crowd at Scott Stadium should provide a helpful boost to the Cavaliers, but it’s not an overly intimidating venue, especially given the stadiums the Tar Heels have visited this year.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

This game will come down to whether the UNC offense or the Virginia defense is better in comparison to their opposing counterparts. Is the Carolina offensive attack capable of running away and hiding from a lackluster UVA offense? Or is the Cavalier defense far superior to the Tar Heel defense and able to come up with more stops through four quarters? It’s an intriguing question.

My guess? The Cavalier defense is far superior. But their offense is also overmatched by a UNC offensive machine that is now humming like a top-of-the-line sports car. It’s a classic contrast in styles.

Personally, I prefer a team that is built around a defense, but in today’s world of college football, I’m going with the more prolific offense. The Tar Heels will be slowed down and Williams will be under a tremendous amount of pressure all afternoon, but UNC will do what they’ve done well all season long – finish off drives and convert in the red zone. And I don’t think an undeniably well-coached, but yet offensively challenged Virginia team will keep up.

UNC 35, UVA 24

You can follow me on Twitter @moakes3IMG_2557.JPG

Posted in NCAA Athletics, Picks, Tar Heel fball | Leave a comment

Breakin’ It Down: Georgia Tech

The 2-4 North Carolina football team is coming off its fourth straight loss, this time on the road at No. 5 Notre Dame by a 50-43 margin. But this defeat was far more palatable. The Tar Heels surprisingly held the lead heading into the fourth quarter in South Bend, playing with much more energy and aggression.

This week, the UNC players and head coach Larry Fedora have even drawn comparisons to the tough 27-23 loss to top-ten-ranked Miami last season that served as the turning point in the Tar Heels’ season.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, suffered its first loss of the season last week in a home loss to Coastal rival Duke. At 5-1, though, the Ramblin’ Wreck will still like their chances at getting to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game, having already beaten Virginia Tech and Miami.

Carolina and Georgia Tech will meet Saturday in Chapel Hill at 7 p.m. for the 50th time overall. The Yellow Jackets hold a 28-18-3 all-time series advantage, including wins in the 14 of the last 16 head-to-head matchups.

Offense

The UNC offense displayed how potent it can be last week at South Bend. Marquise Williams’ dual-threat ability, in particular, frustrated the vaunted Fighting Irish defense. When UNC is hot, they’re on fire. When they’re cold, however, they’re freezing. Again, it’s like a broken record, but it bares repeating. If the Tar Heels can figure out a way to establish more consistency in a largely nonexistent running game, they would really take some pressure away from Williams and keep opposing defenses more honest.

Trick plays continue to work wonders for the Tar Heels. In fact, five different UNC players have thrown a touchdown this season. You should expect more surprises up Coach Fedora’s sleeve against the Yellow Jackets. The young UNC offensive linemen have been thrown into the fire the last few weeks against some of the best defenses in the country – Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Facing a good, but not great GT this week will feel like a breath of fresh air. No GT defensive ends or defensive tackles weigh in over the 300-pound mark on the scales. With that in mind, Williams should have more time to get the ball out to his vast array of playmakers.

As for the Jackets, they’re extremely efficient. GT is the only FBS team ranked in the top ten in both 3rd down and 4th down conversions. The Jackets also lead the nation with a 58.9 percent 3rd down conversion rate. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. The triple option sets up short-yardage situations on the money downs. Head coach Paul Johnson isn’t afraid to roll the dice either. He hates to punt and loves to go for it on fourth down. The Jackets are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas. Thomas ranks second among FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards per game. In addition to Thomas, GT relies heavily on senior running back Zach Laskey. He has 105 carries for 523 yards and 3 touchdowns so far in 2014. In addition, Laskey has recorded only four negative carries in 322 career rushing attempts. As always, GT will be eager to pad the offensive stats, especially against a UNC defense that historically struggles mightily against them.

EDGE: PUSH

Defense

The Tar Heels are steadily improving week-to-week. I know the scoreboard hasn’t necessarily shown it, but greater defensive energy and more pressure being applied up front has been noticeable in recent weeks. Even more encouraging for the Tar Heels is their ability, so far, to force turnovers each and every game.

But missed tackling and a porous secondary can still double-team to give up disastrous big plays for the Tar Heels at inopportune times. Let’s be honest, UNC ranks dead last in scoring defense, averaging giving up an astonishing 43.3 points each game.This week, more than any other, gap assignments and discipline will be paramount for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s boys.

The Jackets, meanwhile, are always tough to figure out on defense. Why? Because of how well their offense handles the ball and chews up clock. The defensive front struggles to penetrate into opposing backfields, only managing seven sacks this season – that’s good enough for last in the ACC. But GT does have a talented secondary that doesn’t allow too many big plays and is opportunistic, snagging eight interceptions through six games. What’s more, they’re only giving up 25 points per contest this season, although I don’t think they’ve played anybody with the quick-strike ability of the Tar Heels.

EDGE: GT

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both teams rank at or near the top in a majority of special teams departments. Their punt and kickoff teams are very solid. UNC’s Coach Fedora, though, is still waiting for that game-changing play from his special teams unit. Will he get it this week? Paul Johnson, meanwhile, has a special teams weapon. GT junior defensive back Chris Milton is tied for second in the FBS with two blocked kicks already this season. Last year, he was the only player in the nation to block three punts. The Tar Heels will have home-field advantage working for them Saturday night. Night-time crowds at Kenan Stadium can definitely produce hostile atmospheres.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

This game will come down to the start. UNC has to take a page out of Duke’s book. Yes, arch-rival Duke. The key? Establish a lead early on and force the Yellow Jackets to try to play their triple option from behind. Last week, the Yellow Jackets coughed up the football multiple times. It cost them big-time as they fell too far behind to make a rally against the Blue Devils. If Georgia Tech can avoid those mistakes against Carolina and keep their offense on schedule, they should eat up a ton of clock and have the upper-hand. What’s more, the young Tar Heel defense hasn’t experienced much success against any offense this season, let alone the ultra-frustrating triple option they’re about to face Saturday night.

However, there’s hope still for the Tar Heels. If they can get Marquise Williams and their explosive offense rolling early on and come up with a key turnover or two on defense, which they’ve shown they can do, UNC can jump out to a double-digit cushion and Georgia Tech may be forced to get out of its comfort zone. History and records both strongly favor Georgia Tech, I know. Call me crazy, but I’m picking the Tar Heels, with their backs up against the wall, to somehow find the right Kenan Stadium night magic to avoid the annual Yellow Jacket sting.

UNC 45, GT 41

You can follow me on Twitter @moakes3

IMG_2550-1.JPG
Photo courtesy of Shellmont.com

Posted in Chapel Hill, NCAA Athletics, Picks, Tar Heel fball | Leave a comment

Breakin’ It Down: Notre Dame

The 2-3 North Carolina football team hits the road to South Bend this weekend for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Notre Dame. The reeling Tar Heels will face an undefeated Fighting Irish squad that is 5-0 and coming off a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback win over Stanford.

Carolina and Notre Dame will meet for the 19th time in a series that dates back to 1949. The Tar Heels trail the all-time series, only managing to emerge victorious on two occasions.

UNC’s last win over a top-10 team was a 31-28 victory over No.4 Miami in 2004. Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora says he’s looking to make some history Saturday, but will his error-prone Tar Heels be up to the challenge of a smothering Irish defense and an efficient offense?

Offense

The UNC offense continues to be an enigma. When they’re hot, they’re on fire. When they’re cold, they’re freezing. If the Tar Heels can figure out a way to establish more consistency in a largely nonexistent running game, they would take some pressure away from quarterbacks Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky, who show flashes of brilliance, but also struggle through abysmal dry periods as well. Coach Fedora has come under some fire in the last week for his insistence on playing Trubisky, despite his lack of success. Last week in Chapel Hill, Trubisky forced a throw that wasn’t there and paid dearly for it with a pick six for the Hokies that put the game out of reach for his team. There’s no questioning the weapons are there for UNC to get rolling again, but a young, inexperienced offensive line must grow up and an over-dependence on Williams’ feet must be kicked first. Then, UNC needs a running back to emerge, and the coaching staff to elect to feed the ball to him over and over. In short, that’s a lot to ask in one week of preparation for a nasty Irish defense. Carolina should continue to experience streaky play from the offense.

As for the Irish, they’re led by Everett Golson. He’s improved a lot, already having tossed 13 touchdown passes – one more than he had in the entirety of the 2012 season. What’s more, coming into the season, Golson had no standout receiver targets at his disposal, but he’s found favorite targets in Will Fuller and Corey Robinson. But much like the Tar Heels, the Irish have failed to manufacture much of a ground game, choosing to go with a running back-by-committee approach. Notre Dame will be eager to pad their offensive stats in this game against a struggling UNC defense.

EDGE: PUSH

Defense

The Tar Heels are steadily improving week-to-week. Greater defensive energy and more pressure up front has been noticeable the past two games. Even the embarrassing tackling woes earlier on in the season have apparently been addressed. But the porous secondary is still prone to giving up big plays through the air.

The Irish, meanwhile, find their identity in their defense. Notre Dame boasts the No. 3 scoring defense in the nation and is ranked ninth-best against the run. These guys are big and fast – only surrendering 12 points per contest. Look out, Carolina offensive line!

EDGE: Notre Dame

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both teams pride themselves in their play on special teams. Their punt and kickoff teams are solid. UNC’s Coach Fedora, though, is still waiting for that game-changing play from his special teams unit. He may be waiting another week after this one. The Tar Heels are still making the kind of mistakes and penalties that make every coach cringe. The Irish are the opposite. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s boys are fundamentally sound in every department and are tough to beat in front of their ravenous home fans. And for many UNC players, their eyes will be like saucers surrounding the rich history and tradition of South Bend. That’s never good.

EDGE: Notre Dame

Prediction

The Notre Dame defense is rugged. They’ll shut down a meager UNC rushing attack and force Williams to try to beat them with his arm and scrambling skills. I expect Golson to do what he does best in managing the game with pinpoint accuracy, avoiding any costly mistakes. Carolina’s back is against the wall and the defense has been steadily improving, but the Irish will score enough to hold the Tar Heels off at home.

ND 35, UNC 30

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

IMG_2542.JPGIMG_2543.JPG

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Scouting Report: A Chat with VT Coach Frank Beamer

I caught up with legendary Virginia Tech head football coach Frank Beamer this week. We discussed the competitiveness and depth in the ACC, how to replace injured Hokie freshman running back Shai McKenzie and of course, previewed what Coach Beamer is calling a ‘must-win matchup’ with UNC this weekend.

***Listen to our conversation by clicking here***

IMG_2533.JPG

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Breakin’ It Down: Clemson

North Carolina will travel down to Death Valley Saturday looking for their first win on the road at Clemson since 2001.

The Tigers sit at 1-2 on the season, but are coming off a respectable overtime loss at Tallahassee against the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are coming off a blowout loss to the surging East Carolina Pirates, but sport a 2-1 record.

Clemson leads the all-time series 35-19-1, and drubbed UNC 59-38 in the last meeting in 2011.

The two schools have a lot at stake in this 2014 encounter. Clemson can ill afford another conference loss, while UNC is in need of a quick turnaround after a demoralizing defeat last weekend.

Offense

The Tar Heels have been streaky on this side of the football. It’s a little bit of a case of Jekyll and Hyde. Marquise Williams has shown flashes of brilliance at the quarterback position, but not enough for the UNC coaching staff to keep redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky over on the bench. The rotation continues, but the more concerning thing for the Tar Heels is the lack of an emerging dominant player in the backfield. None of the athletes in the deep stable of running backs have laid claim to the bulk of the carries. In short, although UNC is capable of explosive plays, there’s no reliable, consistent option to hang your hat on right now in the crucible of competitive games.

As for the Tigers, they also plan to go with a QB rotation. Freshman signal caller Deshaun Watson displayed his uncanny ability to stay calm under pressure last week at rowdy Doak Campbell Stadium. And so head coach Dabo Swinney has granted him the starting job against UNC this week, but he still expects to give some snaps to Cole Stoudt on Saturday. The Tigers have a steadier rushing attack than the Tar Heels and will take full advantage of a solid offensive line that got a shot in the arm last week after dominating the No. 1-ranked Seminoles up front. The quarterbacks figure to have plenty of time to get the ball out to their playmakers, as the UNC defense has struggled to apply consistent pressure this season.

EDGE: PUSH

Defense

In this category, there’s really no contest. The Tigers are in another league. With defensive end Vic Beasley anchoring a unit loaded with veteran experience and tenacious aggression, the Tigers can strike fear into the hearts of opposing offenses. Clemson completely shut down the FSU running game last week, and will likely have its way again with a mediocre UNC rushing attack this week. And just in case there wasn’t any other reason to like the home team’s advantage in this department, they boast the reigning National Player of the Week in linebacker Stephone Anthony.

The Tar Heels were hapless on defense last weekend at ECU. Missed tackles and blown assignments will get you into trouble against any team, and against Clemson on the road? Well, that’s just disastrous. UNC better hope that Norkeithus Otis is fully healthy on Saturday, their linemen are able to penetrate into the Clemson backfield and the secondary is as opportunistic as they’ve ever been to somehow try and slow down the Tiger offense.

EDGE: Clemson

Special Teams/Intangibles

Yes, the Tar Heels have sparkplug Ryan Switzer in their special teams return arsenal, but the sophomore has failed to summon the kind of magic he conjured in year one at Chapel Hill. But the Tar Heels have another solid weapon in the form of punter Tommy Hibbard. He can really flip the field on opponents. The Tigers, though, have played good special teams most of the season and contained a talented FSU return team for most of the game last week.

The main separating factor here, however, comes with the home field advantage. UNC is young and inexperienced. The bright lights and seismic decibel levels in Death Valley should hurt Carolina’s chances and lift a Clemson squad hungry for an ACC win.

EDGE: Clemson

Prediction

UNC was already in trouble enough up front, and now the Tar Heels will face Tiger defensive end Vic Beasley with two offensive linemen sitting out (including Landon Turner, who is listed as doubtful). Clemson can run at nearly every position, as proven by their classic game at No. 1 FSU just last week. UNC, on the other hand, doesn’t figure to have the athletes to match up for four quarters, especially on the road in a hostile environment. The Tar Heels will score, but not nearly enough to make it interesting in the waning minutes.

Clemson 45, UNC 24

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

IMG_1090.JPG

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Scouting Report: A Chat with Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney

Yours truly caught up with Tiger head coach Dabo Swinney as his squad prepares to host the Tar Heels Saturday night. Among other things, we discussed the legendary Death Valley atmosphere, the emergence of freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson and the best way to stop UNC’s Ryan Switzer on special teams.

***Listen to the conversation by clicking here***

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (isportsweb)

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (isportsweb)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment