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UNC vs. Old Dominion: Three things to watch

What to look for when the Tar Heels travel to Norfolk.

Louisville v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Tidewater region of Virginia, a hotspot for Tar Heel recruiting and fandom, will likely host a big crowd looking for the upset. The undefeated Old Dominion Monarchs face a North Carolina Tar Heels team without a win and with a lot of questions. Here are three of those questionable areas that Tar Heels should watch this Saturday.

Will the running game return?

A week after gaining 219 yards on the ground against Cal, the Tar Heels netted 17 yards on 23 rushing attempts. Of course, a 30-yard sack and fumble from Chazz Surratt did not help the rushing total. However, even without that play, UNC has less than 50 yards of rushing offense.

NCAA Football: California at North Carolina
Michael Carter versus Cal
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 receiving corps burst onto the scene last week with solid performances from several players. However, for this team to succeed, there needs to be a credible running threat from the offense. The impressive debuts of Jordon Brown and Michael Carter went by the wayside against Louisville. The two young running backs need to have consistent reps, even with the emergence of the receivers and tight ends last week. Doing so will help their development and the overall progression of the offensive unit.

Questions on the offensive line

Related directly to the ineffective running game versus Louisville is the push the offensive line was unable to make on many of those rushing attempts. Old Dominion’s coach, Bobby Wilder, spoke a couple times in his Monday press conference about the difference in size on the lines between Power Five schools and Group of Five schools. This is certainly a consideration in the case of Old Dominion, a school that transitioned from FCS and is currently in its fourth season in FBS.

Can Carolina take advantage of the size advantage? If so, there may be opportunities to continue building chemistry and timing on the line that still faces question marks, especially with the concerning injury to Cam Dillard in the second half last week.

If not, it could be a long day for the Tar Heels. Linebacker Marvin Branch, defensive end Bunmi Rotimi, and defensive tackle Miles Fox head up a defense that leads all teams in FBS with 15 sacks, ranks third in tackles for loss, and ranks 40th in total defense. The line must step up against this aggressive and productive defense.

Avoiding the “catastrophic plays”

Coach Larry Fedora defines “catastrophic plays” as those give up by the defense of 20 or more yards. Against Louisville, there were three plays that stuck out to me as what I call “backbreaking catastrophic plays.” These are 20+ yard gains on third down that occur on a scoring drive.

On the opening drive, on a 3rd and 4 from Carolina’s 45, Lamar Jackson completed a pass for 21 yards. That drive resulted in a field goal.

On the last play of the first quarter, on a 3rd and 4 from the Louisville 40, Jackson completed a 22-yard pass. That drive resulted in a field goal.

And in what might be described as a “nail-in-the-coffin backbreaking catastrophic play,” on a 3rd and 8 from the UNC 30 with 9:30 left in the game and Carolina down five, Jackson completed a 30-yard pass for a touchdown.

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina
Dez Fitzpatrick’s touchdown in the fourth quarter
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Out of 129 teams in FBS, Carolina is 116th in 3rd down conversion percentage defense. Needless to say, Carolina must avoid these plays and drastically improve on third down.

What will you be watching for when the Tar Heels take on the Monarchs? Let us know in the comments below.