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Game Preview: #21 UNC vs San Diego State

UNC looks to build on a mixed bag performance against Liberty last week against the San Diego State Aztecs.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

#21 North Carolina vs San Diego State, 8:00 PM, ESPNews

Last week was messy and fraught with some uncertainty during the days leading up to the game. There was mystery surrounding who would start at quarterback. It ended up being Marquise Williams who has the job secured for now. There were the four suspensions in the secondary which included two starters at cornerback and a key reserve. Those players have been reinstated and UNC will head into his game at full strength. In short, UNC has all the personnel in place and a game under the belt for the 2014 season.

As much as UNC struggled at times last week, there was margin of error to do so since the opponent was FCS school Liberty. San Diego State presents a different challenge, one that will require the Tar Heels to play closer attention to detail. Last week four turnovers and several penalties was a drag on the overall offensive efficiency. The defensive effort in the second half which saw UNC hold Liberty to a scant 3.3 yards per play and force five turnovers, gave the offense prime field position from which to put points on the board effectively blowing the game open.

Heading into this contest, with the full defensive backfield playing together for the first time, can the Heels be as effective against the Aztecs as they were against Liberty in the second half? While UNC was plenty opportunistic versus the Flames, Liberty didn't move into UNC territory a single time in the second half. The only time Liberty found itself in the Tar Heel end of the field was following Mitch Trubisky's botched screen pass turned interception. All the other second half drives for Liberty died in the Flames' end of the field either by turnover or an outright stop by the defense.  Obviously UNC will need to get a consistent effort from the defense and at a high level since the Aztecs will be a much tougher opponent than last week's FCS foe.

Speaking of consistency, the offense was lacking it in week one and as Larry Fedora's calling card that was a tad surprising. The quarterback uncertainty could have played a role and also the fact UNC didn't lean much on the stable of quality running backs except for spots. Most of the plays were short passes and runs to the edge with little interest in exploring the middle or stretching the defense downfield. Was the limitation in play calling simply Fedora and his staff avoiding opening the playbook too much? Was there a lack of confidence in the downfield passing game or the offensive line in general to both protect and run block?

The former is more likely than the latter. Given how secretive Fedora can be, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that perhaps Seth Littrell didn't open the playbook up very much. That shouldn't be the case against San Diego State nor can it be given the quality of opponent compared to a week ago. UNC will need to be more diverse in the play calling and make use of the talent in the backfield. Williams will probably be given a little more leash to make plays with his arm and his legs, something he proved effective doing last season. However, the key area to watch is how much productions the running backs provide, especially T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood. Both showed flashes last week of what they are capable of doing but neither were given a significant number of carries.

This game is a bit of an early test and also constitutes a game UNC can ill-afford to lose. The Heels have a gauntlet waiting after the bye week with road trips to ECU and Clemson followed by a home date with Virginia Tech and a trip to South Bend, IN to face Notre Dame. Handling this game with efficiency and maybe a little dominance is a good tone to strike heading into the two weeks of preparation for the Pirates.

UNC 42 SDSU 24