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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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