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UNC Football vs. Temple: Three things to watch in the Military Bowl

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What to look for as the Heels head to Annapolis.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Bowl Season! It’s been too long since we’ve been able to gather ‘round the TV during the holidays, ignore our family, and invest in one last Tar Heels football game. Tomorrow, Carolina looks to end 2019 on a high note in their first ever meeting in football against the Temple Owls.

It’s been a little while since we’ve seen the team, and most of us know next to nothing about Temple. With that in mind, here’s what you should keep your eye on in the match up.

Air Raid Warning

A quick glance at the stats for Temple would make you think that the best chance for Carolina will be on the ground. The Owls are giving up 152 yards/game on the ground and only 212 in the air. With the Law Firm likely the healthiest it’s been all year, at minimum Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, and Antonio Williams should have plenty of room to run.

You would think that if you remove some of the weaker teams from Temple’s stats, those numbers get better for Carolina, but even if you took out Bucknell, UConn, ECU, and Georgia Tech from the equation, the passing numbers are going to be right around the same number. So why would Phil Longo, Sam Howell, and the offense be drooling at this defense on the other side?

Three games: Memphis, SMU, and UCF.

During that three-game run, the Owls went 1-2 and were outscored 136-72. The Tigers racked up 363 yards and two touchdowns in a loss, SMU went 457 yards with six (!) touchdowns in their win, and UCF went 229 and four TDs in their win, while racking up 385 yards on the ground. That’s a total of nearly 350 yards/game and four touchdowns in that stretch. It’s fair to say that the Owls haven’t faced anyone like Sam Howell during that stretch, and as their ground defense is already a vulnerability, the plays will be there for Howell to make through the air. The Owls also only have eight picks the entire year, so UNC’s receivers should have room to operate as long as they don’t drop the ball.

Red Zone Offense

It’s been the biggest headache for the Tar Heels this season. They can get the ball inside the 20, but once they do, the field condenses, the Air Raid can’t do anything, and the Tar Heels fail to convert.

Temple looks to be an opponent that is vulnerable to Red Zone scoring. They are giving up a score on 63% of their opponents’ red zone possessions, and half of them end up in touchdowns. That may not sound very impressive, especially when you look at Carolina’s stats and see the exact same numbers.

Again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Carolina ended the season 42-48 in the Red Zone as a whole, but a staggering 26-48 in terms of scoring a touchdown in the Red Zone. What makes it even more astounding is that Carolina needed a combined 9-9 between the Mercer and NC State games just to get their number to that level. So the question is whether or not the last two games are a permanent upward trend or an anomaly when measured against the season as a whole. Tomorrow will be a good indication as to whether Phil Longo and the rest of the offensive staff used the bowl practices to install some better Red Zone offense, or if they planned to work on it during the spring. If at all.

Turnover Belt

Too few players played too many snaps on defense. If it felt like you always saw the same names running across the front line: Chazz Surratt, Jeremiah Gemmel, Aaron Crawford, you aren’t wrong. So it can be said that month off since the last game was probably a welcome break for this crew.

The Owls come into the game averaging over 27 points a game, 142 yards on the ground, and 260 in the air. Even if the defenses they’ve faced are arguably not the best, that they went their entire twelve-game schedule scoring in the double digits shows how prolific the offense is.

Temple is led on offense by Anthony Russo, who completes 58 percent of his passes for 227 yards a game. Much to the relief of observers of the team, Russo is not a threat to run, as he’s actually a net negative on the year thanks to his sacks. Their rushing attack is led by Re’Mahn Davis and Jager Gardner. They combine for 135 yards/game, 12 touchdowns, and both move it for over four yards a rush. It’s a strong pair that the defensive front will have to contain to put pressure on Russo.

The good news is that Temple has a propensity to turn the ball over. Russo has eleven picks on the year, and as a whole the Owls have fumbled the ball eighteen times, losing it 7 of them. Thus, at that one turnover a game clip, there’s a decent chance that turnover belt will make an appearance, and thanks to the month off, everyone on defense will be looking to claim it.

Tomorrow has a chance to set the tone for 2020. Here’s hoping Carolina’s return to the postseason ends with their first actual win since 2013.