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UNC vs Western Carolina: Game Preview

The Catamounts visit Chapel Hill. The Heels try to start a winning streak.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina will look to start their first multi-game winning streak against the Western Carolina Catamounts. Fresh off their annual victory over Pittsburgh, the Heels will look to gain some momentum before their season-ending clash with the team in red.

Western Carolina

An FCS program in the Southern Conference, the Catamounts enter this weekend with a 7-4 record. Their only other game against an FBS opponents was their season opening loss at Hawaii where the Rainbow Warriors trounced them 41-18. They most recently lost to Mercer 35-33.

They’ll be bringing a ground focused offense, averaging 35.4 points per game. Led by their two-headed rushing attack in Detrez Newsome and Tyrie Adams, WCU averages 5.4 ypc and 238 yards per game. Newsome gained 1048 yards and nine touchdowns, despite missing three games. Adams complements him with 897 yards and two touchdowns.

Oh, I should mention Adams is also the quarterback. In 11 games he has thrown for 2225 yards (203ypg), 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Behind his weekly efforts, the WCU offense averages 73 plays and 453 yards per game. In other words, their style of play is one that has often given the Tar Heels problems.

On defense, they have held opponents to 153 passing yards per game while forcing 13 interceptions. Marvin Tillman leads the way with five interceptions and 96 tackles. However, that success has been negated by allowing 213 yards per game on the ground. Boasting only 20 sacks on the year, their front seven is not as formidable as most of the Heels’ opponents this year. Stud linebacker Tahjai Watt leads that group with 6 sacks.

North Carolina

The Heels can change the narrative of their season by closing out with a small winning streak. After Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris battled throughout the first half of the season, Nathan Elliott now has a firm grasp on the quarterback position after a solid performance against Pittsburgh last week.

While he doesn’t have the strongest arm, his decision making was drastically improved after throwing three second-half interceptions against Miami. (To be fair, that defense is, um, very good). He also showed the ability to stay calm and poised in a road environment. Finishing 20-31 with 235 yards, 2 TDs, and zero interceptions was a sign of growth. That will be needed against WCU’s ball-hawking secondary.

Anthony Ratliff-Williams also figures to be all over the field. Of course last week he returned, threw, and received a touchdown. He’s morphing into a Ryan Switzer-style Swiss Army Knife right in front of our eyes. If the secondary starts to give Elliott difficulties, I’d expect some more trick play action to take place.

Defensively, the Heels have steadily improved every week. The overall numbers have not been attractive — 107th scoring defense, 75th passing defense, 114th rushing defense, 108th total defense. However, that is largely because they have spent so much time on the field, not all of which is their fault. The past two weeks have seen the defense start getting key defensive stops, most notably forcing two opportune fumbles against Miami and Pitt.

The last time they played an opponent with a similar skill-level (Old Dominion) they dominated the competition for an easy victory. This time, playing on Senior Day in front of the home crowd, the defense can make one more statement before visiting Raleigh next week.

What to Expect

This is a game that UNC should have in hand before the conclusion of the first half. However, they have historically struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks. While Tyrie Adams isn’t Lamar Jackson, he doesn’t have to be. Even Old Dominion’s third-string freshman QB, Steven Williams, gave the Heels problems.

The best way to contain a two-dimensional threat is to make it one-dimensional. The Heels can do that by exploiting the weak rush defense that Western Carolina has displayed. If Jordon Brown and Michael Carter can eat up large chunks of yards and help set up some early UNC scoring drives, the Catamounts would be forced into passing situations. They haven’t found themselves in that position very often. Doing so would also help neutralize the threat of 1,000 yard rusher Newsome.

Should UNC find itself in this situation, the defensive line — which has made huge strides the past few weeks— would have to be careful to not over pursue and maintain containment on Adams. That’s been a problem in the past, and partly contributed to Pitt’s QB, Nick DiNucci, scrambling for 83 yards on 14 carries. Prior to that game, DiNucci had 43 yards all season.

Prediction:

North Carolina 41
Western Carolina 17