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Game Preview: Heels Travel to Miami on a Thursday Night

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Carolina’s victory this past weekend may be short-lived as they prepare to square off against the U.

Miami v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

We won a game (Saturday), if we win one (Thursday) that’s two in a row. If we win one (16 days later) that’s called a winning streak. It’s happened before, SO LET’S JACK IT UP A LITTLE! - Lou Brown, Major League II

On a very quick turnaround, the North Carolina Tar Heels have a chance to do something that would’ve seemed impossible just four days ago— open 2-0 in ACC play with a nonzero chance of taking down the Coastal Division for the second time in four years.

Consider the contenders, defined as “all” in this wide-open division:

  • Virginia Tech: just lost to Old freaking Dominion, dismissed its best defensive player, and shelved QB Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future;
  • Virginia: just shelled Louisville, but Louisville appears to be very bad;
  • Duke: a mighty impressive 4-0, but still without Daniel Jones, and potentially his backup.
  • Pitt: just lost to UNC;
  • Georgia Tech: 0-2 in conference, still completely unpredictable, but 0-2 in conference including a loss to a team that just lost to UNC.

That leaves Miami, ranked 16th in the country, the extreme favorite in the division, and Carolina’s opponent on Thursday night. Best way to bury ‘em is to beat ‘em.

UNC vs. Miami, By the Numbers

Untitled

Measure Carolina Miami
Measure Carolina Miami
S&P+ 77th 16th
Off S&P 86th 22nd
Def S&P 75th 23rd
Special S&P 3rd 116th
YPP Offense 5.55 (82nd) 6.18 (50th)
YPP Defense 5.13 (88th) 3.82 (2nd)
TO Margin -4 (T-123) 0 (T-64)
Penalty YPG 78 (123rd) 40 (T-18)

A quick glance tells you what you need to know — Miami is probably a better football team than North Carolina. There’s a stark difference between the teams in every statistic, with only special teams (3rd vs. 116th in the country) tilting in Carolina’s favor.

Surprisingly, Miami has been quite good at limiting penalties — a rare treat for Hurricanes fans.

The key caveat to all of this would be the following: a quarter of Miami’s schedule thus far was played against Savannah State, a football program that exists only for the purpose of 70+ point losses (12th game for Carolina, anyone?) To be fair, UNC’s game against East Carolina was supposed to be statistically similar.

When Carolina Has the Ball

Miami’s opener, a 33-17 loss to LSU, was somewhat misleading: the Canes only gave up 296 yards to the LSU offense— who scored one touchdown on a 72-yard, six-play drive, and another that went 11 for 58. Other than that? All field goals for the Bayou Bengals.

I say this to make the point that Miami has a good, possibly lights-out, defense. The usual suspects in LB’s Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney are among the tackles leaders, as is S Jaquan Johnson...but the defensive line has been FEROCIOUS.

NCAA Football: Miami at Toledo Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Gerald Willis, the Florida transfer who sat out last year citing “personal issues”, only has an issue with other teams moving the ball against him. He’s got 10 (ten) tackles for loss in four games, a stat in which the Canes lead the nation with 46. They force offenses off schedule early, allowing just 2.14 yards per carry.

Whatever the Heels do, they will not win this football game if they don’t double that number. Nathan Elliott was successful in the read option game in the Heels’ near upset of the U last year, and will have to keep Miami off balance to ensure they don’t pin their ears back and create havoc in the backfield.

Miami is also 7th in pass defense — but again, Savannah State, Toledo, and FIU represent 75% of their opponents on the season. The staff did a great job in the Pitt game of having playmakers catch the ball in space with green grass in front of them— finding a way to do that against a significantly faster and better defense will prove challenging.

At a bare minimum, Carolina has to find a way to limit turnovers— the 50/50 lobs down the sideline to Anthony Ratliff-Williams are simply not going to work— not with Sheldrick Redwine and Johnson coming over the top from the safety position, and ballhawking youngsters such as Trajan Bandy and Jhavonte Dean possessing the athleticism to win some of those balls themselves.

Best case is that Carolina plays a clean game, finds a wrinkle that works consistently on first and second down, and takes advantage of Miami’s aggressiveness when the situation dictates.

When Miami Has the Ball

Depending on your perspective, having N’Kosi Perry make his first career start on Thursday night is an opportunity or a problem for the Heels.

The optimist might say, “he’s inexperienced, its a big moment for him and he is on national TV.” The pessimist? “He’s clearly better than Malik Rosier, and we don’t have much film on him.”

I’ll call it a wild-card. His passer rating is far superior to Rosier’s, as he has thrown 6 TD’s in only 39 attempts. He’s also thrown two picks, so opportunity abounds for Carolina to get on the board in that category.

In a quarterback’s first start, coaches tend to lean on the running game— the Heels were ready for it in Chapel Hill last year, but Travis Homer, DeeJay Dallas, and freshman Lorenzo Lingard are all averaging north of 5 yards per carry early on. We need more “second half vs. Pitt” against the run and can ill afford any “first half vs. Pitt.”

NCAA Football: Miami at Louisiana State
Jeff Thomas
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

If Miami is going to beat you over the top, its probably sophomore Jeff Thomas doing it. He’s averaging an absurd 26.5 yards per catch thus far on the season, and has taken the #1 receiver role that Ahmmon Richards can’t seem to stay healthy enough to maintain.

This is a steady, albeit unspectacular, Miami offense, but one that possesses more ceiling— and floor— with Perry as the first-time starter.

Special Teams, Coaching, Intangibles

Carolina has a special teams advantage! Zach Feagles (hey, he had a brother at UNC) is averaging 37 net yards per punt, Thomas has one big punt return on the season and has been otherwise unspectacular, and Bubba Baxa (All-ACC name alert) is two for three on field goals for the season.

Getting to special teams (on the positive side) may be an issue — Carolina is converting 33% of its third downs, while Miami is allowing 17%. On the flip side, Miami is converting 48% while Carolina is allowing 44%. For Carolina to have a punchers’ chance, those numbers need to flip.

I’m not doing coaching and intangibles. Look at the penalty yardage, look at running Elliott wide on third and a foot on the first drive of the third quarter on Saturday, look at Mark Richt’s track record.

Outlook

This is one of those “everything has to go right but you can squint and see that happening” scenarios. Tell me Carolina gets to Perry and forces 3 turnovers, and I tell you Carolina wins the football game.

Barring that, it will likely take a miracle— but it could be close for awhile.

Miami 33, Carolina 16