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BRING ON THE DUKES: UNC-JMU Preview

JMU deserves respect as it visits Chapel Hill for UNC Football’s first home game of the year.

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon the Heels will welcome the Dukes of James Madison to Chapel Hill for a 3:30 showdown. In return, Kenan Memorial Stadium welcomes the Tar Heels for their first home contest of the year. A (hopefully) packed blue and white stadium will be a welcome sight to UNC players and staff after a road game at Illinois, and a road neutral site game against the University of Georgia.

Some may scoff at JMU and its cute bulldog mascot, but the #8 FCS team in the nation deserves respect as they make the trip south. They’ve tallied 19 touchdowns and over 800 rushing yards against their first two opponents, Morehead State and Central Connecticut State. While the level of competition for those two schools isn’t quite to the level of UGA and Illinois – Morehead State is a non-scholarship program – the method of JMU’s victories should be noted. A ball-control, up-tempo, multi-running back system makes them the exact kind of team that has given UNC trouble the past few years.

Bonus Fact: Their coach, Mike Houston, coached at the Citadel the past two years. His notable victories were at South Carolina last year, and against D-II powerhouse Coastal Carolina in the playoffs. JMU will not be intimidated.

UNC Offensive Tidbits

Mitch Trubisky finally found a little bit of a groove last week, using his feet and his arm. James Madison will provide him the perfect opportunity to improve upon last week’s numbers. This is largely due to their 4-2-5 alignment that Zach mentioned yesterday. This system will often willingly forego an aggressive pass rush in order to provide additional protection in the secondary. Raise your hand if you remember how that worked for UNC from 2012-2014!?

All joking aside, that alignment should provide plenty of daylight for the read-option, and both Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan should have success. In fact, if fans are hoping for Hood to “break out” before Pittsburgh next week, Saturday will provide a prime opportunity to feast. James Madison has only allowed 3.2 yards per carry, but the nature of their blow-out victories also haven’t provided their opponents many reasons to run.

Additionally, a 4-2-5 provides some flexibility to better set the edges and contain mobile quarterbacks and shifty running backs. It does not, however, provide much relief if the offense can get between the tackles. UNC has struggled with that this season, so that battle in the trenches, particularly R.J. Prince at right guard, will be required viewing. If the guards can find success, those A and B gap running lanes will be a welcome sight for Hood.

In the event that the running game struggles in the early quarters, the lack of a JMU pass rush - zero sacks through two games - will provide plenty of time for Trubisky to find his wide receivers. With only two linebackers and five defensive backs lining up on defense, the middle of the field should provide plenty of green patches of glorious Kenan grass for Switzer and Hollins to camp. Much like last week’s 2nd and 3rd quarters against Illinois, I’d expect to see a consistent flow of 7 to 12 yard strikes as the wide receivers find the soft spot. It will just take a few completions to open up the routes downfield, which is what UNC fans really want to see.

If JMU decides to either step up the pressure (unlikely), or fall back even deeper in an attempt to prevent explosive plays (an ever increasing tactic against UNC), then the short passing game will once again be a likely avenue. This is where T.J. Logan can once again provide a true spark. His ability to catch balls out of the backfield and create in open space continues to be a true x-factor this season. His skill set will keep JMU off balance.

The upside to a 4-2-5 scheme are the various defensive formations at a team’s disposal. JMU’s best chance to slow down Trubisky and company is to follow UGA’s game plan of disguising multiple defensive schemes. Remember, Georgia’s ability to hide their intentions before the snap left UNC confused for the majority of the night. In turn UNC’s ability to push the pace was successfully mitigated.

If JMU can find success with confusing/disguised pre-snap formations, UNC may find itself in the same offensive quagmire they found themselves in for the first five quarters of the season.

UNC Defensive Musings

As mentioned above, JMU’s offense has found the end zone 19 times. Of those 19, all but three have come on the ground. Averaging 405 rushing yards per game at 6.3 yards per carry, it’s easy to see where JMU places an emphasis in its system. On the surface this may appear worrisome. After all, rushing defense is the weakest link on UNC. Right? Is that still a thing?

Respect and admiration are in order for JMU’s early offensive outbursts. However, I’m not sure that continues in Chapel Hill. The biggest factor is UNC’s secondary and the lack of the JMU aerial attack thus far. JMU hasn’t been forced to pass, but an offense that relies THAT much on the running game usually doesn’t rely on the arm of their QB.

That is not to say the Dukes’ can’t pass. Quarterback Bryan Schor has been a very efficient, connecting on over 78% of his passes, finding the end zone three times. But, he has thrown only 16 passes per game, averaging under nine yards per pass. Not terrible, but also a rather small sample size against inferior competition. James Madison has actually only attempted 35 passes total. If UNC can force the visitors to play from behind and out of their comfort zone we may finally see the first interception of the season for the Heels’ secondary.

In comparison, JMU has run 129 running plays while using seven different players. If a JMU threat through the air does not materialize, UNC could have some freedom to stack eight in the box. Depending on the situation, fans may even see nine blue jerseys stacking the line. Or, at the very least, UNC may be able to try to add a few creative/complex layers to their schemes as they prepare for future ACC games.

Also, don’t forget Nazair Jones’ emergence on the defensive line, and Andre Smith’s impressive rise at middle linebacker. Their abilities to keep running backs (mostly) out of the middle of the field will limit the Dukes’ options when handing off to their three headed monster of Cardon Johnson (225 yards, 4 TDs), Trai Sharp (156 yards, 1 TDs), and Khalid Abdullah (156 yards, 2 TDs). However, there’s a fourth running option.

Schor also has some wheels, having run for 163 yards and three touchdowns in addition to his passing stats. Historically, a mobile quarterback has found great success UNC defenses. Deshaun Watson, Shane Carden, Jacoby Brissett, and Everett Golson have all found success. UNC will have to find a way to shut Schor down early and often. That sounds like the perfect assignment for Smith at middle linebacker.

Honestly, entering the third week of the season, the UNC defense should be getting used to seeing this game plan. We watch this movie every week, and every week it feels like a choose-your-own-adventure. JMU can be expected to call a high amount of running plays in an attempt to 1) control the clock, so UNC’s offense stays idle on the sidelines and 2) exploit UNC’s still questionable running defense. This week’s challenge is deceptively difficult, but if the team can show similar growth compared to last week, UNC fans may be looking forward to Pitt with more optimism than worry.

Conclusion

UNC wins if...

They can exploit the open spaces near the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field. Running and passing lanes will be there for the taking if Mitch Trubisky doesn’t get confused by many (any!?) of the pre-snap movements Jimmy Madison may attempt. Contain Bryan Schor early, and force them to only use their running backs.

JMU wins if...

They don’t turn the ball over, control the clock for over 35 minutes, and keeps their passing game short and sweet. UNC’s pass rush has been increasingly effective. If the Dukes have to play from behind, Schor has to get the ball out of his hands quickly. JMU can’t afford to give any free possessions to UNC’s offense.