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UNC Football: Wake Forest Game Preview

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The Heels see a familiar foe under unfamiliar circumstances as both teams look to improve to 3-0.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Remember those old ladder-style combat games you and your friends spent countless hours playing as a child? For me, that game was Killer Instinct, and on sleepovers friends and I would always take turns playing fights as we worked our way to the game’s boss, Eyedol. Eyedol was a three-headed centaur/demon creature, and for the purpose of this exercise, represents a potential date with Clemson in the ACC Championship.

Most of the early opponents in the ladder were fairly replacement-level, as an early fight with Jago or Orchid meant, depending on the guidelines drawn out with your friends, that you got to play until you lost— and you were good to go for three or four rounds.

The Heels are you with the controller, South Carolina and Miami were akin to drawing Thunder or Glacius (brute strength with some sneaky athleticism) way too early, and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons are Jago— pretty easy to figure out, but the AI makes his moves a little crisper after two victories.

Date/Time: September 14, 2019, 6:00pm
TV: ESPN
Line: Wake Forest -3.5, O/U 67

What’s at stake?

Depending on your perspective, a whole lot— or a whole lot less than every other meeting in the history of these two programs.

On one hand, this is the first of four in-state rivals Mack Brown’s Tar Heels will play this year. Brown puts a 19-game winning streak against the “Big Four” on the line on Friday night. There are actual tangible stakes here as well, with both teams entering the game 2-0.

A Carolina win means a likely appearance in the top 25, and a potential visit from College Gameday if they hold serve against App State next week.

On the other hand, this is set up as a weird non-conference game with a conference opponent. A loss has no effect on Carolina’s Coastal Division hopes, and would only serve to further extend the three-year losing streak against in-state opponents.

This game is more about bragging rights for in-state fans, and for Carolina fans that means not having to hear from the 12 Wake Forest fans they know from now until sometime next decade.

North Carolina Offense vs. Wake Forest Defense

Wake comes in ranked 105th in the country in yards per play on defense at 6.07— a number skewed high by Utah State’s ability to march on them two weeks ago, and low due to Rice’s #120 offense. While it’s too early to draw any conclusive results, the Tar Heels’ attack much more closely resembles that of Utah States (odd as that sentence sounds).

The Tar Heels are putting up 6.36 YPP, good for 46th in the country, despite facing two objectively good defenses. Given Wake’s youth on the defensive line, a multifaceted approach with Sam Howell attacking downfield and Javonte Williams & company moving the chains should spell points for the guys in blue and white.

Given Wake’s offensive tempo (more on that later) I expect Carolina to play it pretty close to the vest early— let Williams and Michael Carter get going early, affect the eye discipline of Wake’s back seven, and throw downfield in favorable down-and-distance. Barring any major glitches, the Heels should be able to put up points on the Deacons.

North Carolina Defense vs. Wake Forest Offense

Things I didn’t expect to say after Week 2:

  • “UNC’s offense closely resembles Utah State’s”
  • “The Heels could be looking at a top 25 berth and the potential for Gameday”
  • Jamie Newman may be the best quarterback the Heels have played thus far”

I’ve already said the first two, so... Jamie Newman may be the best quarterback the Heels have played so far. Against questionable competition, Newman is completing 74% of his passes and moving the ball for 356.5 yards per game through the air. His passer efficiency ranks 15th in the country (#14 plays for UNC). He’s also a threat to keep the defense off balance with the run, as he averages about 3 yards per non-sack run.

In Scotty Washington and Sage Surratt, he has two very good receiving weapons, and tight end Jack Freudenthal is a nice safety valve. Converted quarterback Kendall Hinton, who has been a great slot receiver, is listed as doubtful for Friday night’s game, as is leading rusher Cade Carney.

For the Heels, the focus has to be finishing plays. Missed sacks allowed both Jake Bentley and Jarren Williams to extend plays and allow their receivers to get open against an inexperienced secondary. With Patrice Rene out for the year, asking the DBs to cover for more than 3-4 seconds could spell trouble— especially given that Washington and Surratt are both tall and explosive.

Freshman running back Kenneth Walker burst onto the scene with 125 yards on 9 carries against Rice after Carney went down. Those numbers, again, were against Rice, but the Heels have to neutralize the rush early so the defensive line can pin its ears back and get after Hinton.

Wake will be good for some big plays in the passing game, and the key will be to avoid the home run (the Heels are one of very few teams in the country yet to give up a 40+ yard play) and get off the field on third down, because if Wake gets going...their tempo will wear out thin depth on the Tar Heels’ defense.

Special Teams

Wake Forest punter Dom Maggio is a weapon— as of this writing, Carolina punter Ben Kiernan is a liability, ranking 69th of 70 qualified punters in yards per kick.

Wake kicker Nick Skiba is 3/3 on field goals, Carolina’s Noah Ruggles is 5/7.

Play this one to a draw, Heels, and you have the advantage.

X-Factors

The Carolina/Miami game was played with neither team turning the ball over. Key turnovers in this game could spell the difference in what should be a tightly-contested game.

For the Heels, stopping the run and forcing Wake to beat you one-handed (even if that’s proven to be a mighty fine hand) is key. The Demon Deacons are also not deep on defense, so forcing them to face Carolina’s balanced attack for 80+ plays works in Carolina’s favor.

(The same could be said on the other side of the ball.)

Outlook

I’m of the philosophy that Vegas is generally a little slow to adjust to early-season surprises. If both teams are playing their A-game, the Heels are 7-10 points better. I’m not expecting a huge home field advantage for Wake Forest, given the crowd I saw in Chapel Hill on Saturday night.

Wake is still Jago, but Jago has his Kendall Hinton combo moves in full force.

It’ll be a shootout, and could be a “first to 40 wins” type game. That team is North Carolina.

Heels 41, Deacons 34.