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

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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

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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***

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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

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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)

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Breakin’ It Down: ECU

The No. 25 Tar Heels will strive to improve to 3-0 for the first time under head coach Larry Fedora when they travel down to Greenville to take on the battle-tested ECU Pirates, fresh off a 28-21 upset victory at then-No.17 Virginia Tech.

UNC leads the all-time series 12-3-1, but the Pirates smashed the Tar Heels 55-31 a season ago in Chapel Hill. Saturday’s game will mark only the fourth meeting at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium between the schools.

The 2014 encounter promises to be hotly-contested, with the Pirates wanting to prove last year was no fluke and the Tar Heels hoping to exact some revenge on their in-state rivals.

OFFENSE

Free from the shackles of the week one rotation with redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky, and after taking nearly all the snaps in week two against San Diego State, junior signal caller Marquise Williams appears to have settled down and picked up where he left off in 2013. He’s clearly a leader who thrives under scoreboard pressure. And with the capable shiftiness of Ryan Switzer, the return of injured receiver T.J. Thorpe from injury and the emergence of playmaker Mack Hollins, Williams will have a plethora of dynamic options with which to work with. One of the interesting storylines for the Tar Heels will be if somebody emerges as the clear go-to running back in the backfield. T.J. Logan, Elijah Hood and Romar Morris have all shown flashes this season, but you get the feeling one of them should step up and create some separation in the coming weeks. The bottom line: UNC’s offensive attack, especially with the extra week to prepare, is likely to be clicking on all cylinders Saturday afternoon.

As for ECU, it all starts with veteran quarterback Shane Carden. The senior signal caller tops the Pirate history books in career pass completions and touchdowns with 63. Carden can dissect a defense like few can across the nation, ranking among the top five active career leaders in completion percentage, completions per game, passing yards and touchdowns. In short, he’s an absolute handful. Carden’s favorite target is fellow senior Justin Hardy. The duo has connected for 20 touchdowns during their Pirate careers, which leads the nation for all active QB-WR tandems. In fact, Hardy has caught at least two passes in every career game he’s played, a run that sits at 39-straight games. Don’t expect this streak to end against UNC.

EDGE: PUSH

DEFENSE

Carolina’s defense could be described in two words thus far: porous and opportunistic. The Tar Heels are porous in that they give up plenty of yards, quickly. The young Carolina secondary is especially vulnerable to a poised, accurate quarterback. Uh oh. ECU’s Carden would fall into that category. What’s more concerning for the coaching staff, however, are the missed tackles. UNC head coach Larry Fedora says the bye week gave the team time to get those mistakes corrected. We’ll see soon enough.

Despite the obvious struggles, the UNC defense’s ability to create turnovers has been a welcome improvement for the Tar Heels this season. The opportunistic nature of the unit is something defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will be pleased about as he had been stressing the big play ability all offseason to his players. It seems it has paid off with UNC coming up with numerous fumble recoveries and snagging timely interceptions, especially in the dramatic win against SDSU.

The Pirates feature a couple outstanding players on the defense. Linebacker Maurice Falls has been placed on the 2014 Watch List for the Butkus Award, handed out to the nation’s premier linebacker. Meanwhile, ECU added an important piece to its roster last week in the win at VT in the form of defensive tackle Terry Williams. Williams has recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for the first two games of the season. He figures to cause havoc for the young UNC offensive linemen. The strength of the defense lies against the run. The Pirates have limited two of their first three opponents to under 100 yards as a team. Against the pass, the Pirates are a bit of a mixed bag, but have managed to strike fear in opposing quarterbacks with one of the top interception units in the country. But there’s a lot of inexperience in the secondary, too. If Carolina plays an aggressive game and challenges the Pirate safeties with the deep ball, ECU could be exposed.

EDGE: PUSH

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both UNC and ECU are sound in the special teams department. For the Pirates, Hardy is a huge punt return threat, while the Tar Heels can match them with their own spark plug in Switzer. Switzer established an ACC record with five punt return touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, will no doubt be fired up to prove his Tar Heels still have the upper hand. As far as home field advantage, that goes to the Pirates. 50,000-strong will be yelling their lungs out in Greenville on Saturday, hungry for another big win. But the Tar Heels are ravenous for another reason. They want revenge badly. Getting embarrassed last season in front of their home fans didn’t sit well. UNC certainly has motivation.

EDGE: PUSH

PREDICTION:

This contest should be an exciting, high-flying thriller for Pirate Nation. The first quarter will likely tell the tale in this one. If the Tar Heels can get off to a strong start (something they haven’t been able to do a lot of lately), the raucous Pirate crowd will be held at bay. Carden and Williams, though, should put on an attractive offensive display, having their way with the respective defenses. I expect UNC to get off to a better start this week, continue to produce big takeaways and relentlessly attack the Pirate secondary downfield. The Tar Heels will grit out another tough victory, this time in enemy territory.

UNC 42, ECU 35

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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Breakin’ It Down: San Diego State

The No. 21 Tar Heels will attempt to improve to 2-0 under head coach Larry Fedora for the first time when they welcome the streaking San Diego State Aztecs to Chapel Hill for a Saturday night showdown that will mark the second ever game between the two schools on the gridiron.

UNC claimed the only previous meeting between the two schools when it claimed a 20-13 win to capture the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl.

This 2014 encounter promises to be competitive as both teams are on hot streaks with the Tar Heels having emerged victorious in seven of their last eight and the Aztecs coming out winners in nine out of their last eleven outings.

OFFENSE

UNC has picked its starting quarterback in junior Marquise Williams. Williams’ performance in week one was a mixed bag. Williams tossed in a pair of interceptions to go with his two touchdowns and 169 yards passing. Williams, though, was splitting the reps with redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. According to Coach Fedora, however, Williams will get the majority of snaps moving forward. This may bode well for Williams improving his consistency against a tricky Aztec defense. The good news for the Tar Heels is the bevy of offensive weaponry at their disposal. Against Liberty, ten different players caught passes, with sophomore Ryan Switzer leading the way with a career-high eight. When you couple the vast array of talent flying around the football field with the fact that the typically warp-speed Tar Heels ran a whopping 93 plays in the opening game, UNC figures to present all sorts of assignment problems to opposing defenses, and that includes the Aztecs. The Tar Heels can score in bunches, and in a hurry, as proven by their 28 unanswered third-quarter points in less than four minutes last week. The only reservation on this side of the ball lies up front. With two offensive linemen making their first career starts just last week, how will they protect Williams and company when the talent quotient increases in week two?

As for SDSU, the veteran offensive guru Bob Toledo, with 39 years of coaching experience, enters his second season at the controls of the Aztec attack. SDSU can move the ball quickly down the field thanks to the return a senior quarterback in reliable Quinn Kaehler, who has recorded 13 consecutive 200-yard passing games. One of his most dangerous weapons is receiver Ezell Ruffin. Ruffin broke out for 1,136 yards receiving last season, the most by an Aztec non-senior in the 15-year history of the Mountain West. The Kaehler-Ruffin duo figures to provide a severe test for the Carolina secondary Saturday night. In the backfield, a name to keep an eye on is Donnel Pumphrey. He was one of two freshmen in the country last year to post three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Pumphrey provides enough of a running threat for the Aztecs to keep the UNC defense guessing. What’s more, the Aztecs are armed with upperclassmen on the offensive line.

EDGE: UNC

DEFENSE

Carolina’s defense is viewed as the weakest link of the Tar Heel team, but the players are hungry to prove otherwise in 2014. Week one against Liberty provided a few bright spots, especially in the turnover department. The Tar Heels generated four fumbles and recovered all of them. In addition, junior linebacker Jeff Shoettmer snagged his first career interception and returned it for a touchdown. With starting cornerbacks Brian Walker and De Lawrence returning to the lineup following their one-game suspensions for an off-the-field incident, the secondary should receive a much-needed boost this weekend. But with plenty of holes to fill and inexperience dotting the field, the jury is still out on defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s boys.

The Aztecs feature one of the more unique approaches to defense in the nation. Head coach Rocky Long is known for his unorthodox philosophy with wacky formation shifts and hyper-active movement. Coach Fedora even says he’ll expect some plays where not a single Aztec player touches a hand to the grass. Allowing just seven points in their opener and having not given up more than 401 yards in total offense in seven consecutive games, the Aztec defense is improving. But the youth is an issue here. SDSU returns only four starters from last season. But even with eight first-time starters, the highest total for either side of the ball by any team in the nation, SDSU’s style of play could frustrate and confuse the flow of the Carolina offense.

EDGE: PUSH

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both UNC and SDSU are special teams superstars! The two schools are two of just four in the country with at least three kick returns for a touchdown and three punt returns for a touchdown since 2011. It will be an unfamiliar position for the two squads Saturday night as both the Tar Heels and Aztecs are used to having a decided advantage in the special teams department. UNC return specialist Switzer, who established an ACC record with five punt return touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, will no doubt be fired up to prove his Tar Heels still have the upper hand. As far as home field advantage, although Chapel Hill doesn’t always provide a raucous atmosphere or intimidating scene for opponents, it’s likely it will this week. The game has been billed as the “Kenan Stadium Tar Pit Stripe Out” and may be a sell-out come kickoff. On national television and with a revived football fan base, it could be a fantastic scene in Kenan Stadium.

EDGE: UNC

PREDICTION:

This contest could be an absolute thriller for the fans. Fireworks could light up the night sky! San Diego State is a perennial winner with a strong football tradition. Although the Aztecs will start the game as underdogs, don’t put it past them to get off to an explosive start on offense and silence the packed house in Kenan Stadium. But let’s face it, the Aztecs don’t come East very often for a reason. It’s tough to go on the road, travel that far to the other side of the continent and summon the energy for four quarters to fend off a talented team and a ravenous crowd. I think the Tar Heels will play a better first half in week two and control the game with a strong offense and an opportunistic defense.

UNC 45, SDSU 24

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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