Where: Rutgers Stadium, Piscataway, New Jersey
When: Saturday, September 25th, 3:30 PM
Records: UNC 0-2; Rutgers 2-0
Wow, with all the news flowing out of Chapel Hill this week regarding the NCAA investigation, it's easy to forget there's a pretty doggoned important football game to be played. Carolina will be seeking redemption after a pair of near-misses against top-25 caliber opponents, while Rutgers will face its biggest test of the season after feasting on two early cupcakes.
For the Heels, this game is a chance to staunch the bleeding and right the ship for the remaining 10 games of the season. For the first time in weeks, UNC has seemingly not played the waiting game on reinstatements after receiving the news on the NCAA's decisions on Kendric Burney and Deaunta Williams as well as learning that the academic issues have been sent to Honor Court. In addition, this has been Carolina's first normal-type game week with the schedule they will follow the rest of the season.
Given that offense was supposed to be the Tar Heels' weak suit this year, the performance so far has been a pleasant surprise. Against two pretty good defenses, UNC put up 24 points each time and showed the ability to move the ball through the air as well as on the ground. The offensive line changes made before the Georgia Tech game seem to have been effective, and now Shaun Draughn has had two full weeks of practice to get back in game shape. If Johnny White can duplicate his hard running from last week and Draughn is anywhere near full speed, the running game should be deep and the UNC offense will have all its weapons at its disposal.
Defensively, the Heels struggled with Georgia Tech's option offense but another week of practice should pay dividends for the young secondary, who can expect to be tested by Rutgers after only facing four pass attempts from the Jackets. Rutgers has struggled offensively so far this season so maybe the Carolina defense can help out the offense by actually stopping somebody and not asking the offense to score on nearly every possession as was the case against GT.
Rutgers is undefeated, having rolled over I-AA Norfolk State 31-0 and slipped past Florida International 19-14. The Knights have had a week off to prepare for Carolina and to hopefully find a way to jump start its offense, which is only generating 125 yards per game through the air. With leading rusher Joe Martinek questionable for the UNC game (and true freshman Jordan Thomas possibly starting in his place), look for Greg Schiano to utilize standout sophomore receiver Mohamed Sanu in the Wildcat formation quite a bit to open up the offense.
Ultimately the game will hinge on how Rutgers' full-strength defense can match up against UNC's full-strength offense, balanced against how the Knights' depleted offense can fare against Carolina's depleted defense. Gotta like the Tar Heel offense in that situation, given their performance against decent defenses from LSU and Georgia Tech. Since 2005, Rutgers is 8-2 coming off bye weeks, but I don't think it will be enough this time.
UNC 24, Rutgers 13
P.S. Pam Ward will be calling the game on ESPNU. Consider yourself warned.