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UNC’s pass rush is going to have to be special to give the Heels a chance against Clemson

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Against one of the best quarterbacks in the country at any level, the Heels need to be disruptive up front

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

Welp, the week is here. UNC football faces its lowest odds of winning since 2004, according to Vegas, when Dabo Swinney and his national champion Clemson Tigers come to Chapel Hill in a game that nobody in UNC sports media, myself and colleagues included, has even pretended will be contentious, even if Sam Howell is on pace to be the best freshman quarterback in the nation, even if Trevor Lawrence has thrown more interceptions through 4 weeks this year than he did all of last year, whatever. The Tigers’ greatest sin so far this season is not looking like an actual NFL team and steamrolling every team in their path, and they’ve still toyed with every opposition they’ve faced. Texas A&M is a great team, and Clemson essentially beat them 24-3 before allowing a touchdown with 6 seconds left. UNC, a team that started hot and has looked like a bowl game-qualifying team through 4 games, isn’t at that level just yet, and it’s small wonder that the spread is Clemson -28.5 as of this writing.

But that greatest sin is still a sign of susceptibility to being taken advantage of, and that’s what we’re here to talk about. There have been pressure points that UNC can gameplan to take advantage of and give themselves at least a hint of a chance at keeping the score close and taking advantage of a lucky bounce or two, and they all start up front.

UNC’s defensive line has been kind of leaky against the run through four games. Aaron Crawford is doing his job as a nose tackle and doing it really well, but the roster as constructed by Larry Fedora’s staff didn’t really have anybody suited to playing as a 3-4 end besides Jason Strowbridge, leading to that spot being manned by Strowbridge (who has missed most of the last two games) plus a rotation of JuCo transfer Ray Vohasek, true freshman Tomari Fox, and natural DE/OLB Tomon Fox, among a couple of others, all of whom needed at least some time to acclimate to playing at NCAA-level competition (and in the case of the elder Fox, a position change to where he plays best). As a result, the ends have been getting blown off the line more often than not in the run game, leading to per-carry averages of 5.6 yards for South Carolina’s running backs, 6.9 yards for Miami’s, and 5.2 yards for Wake Forest’s. They did tighten up against App State, allowing just 3.5 YPC to the Mountaineer backs, but on the whole, against Power 5 competition, UNC’s run defense has been suspect thus far. That... has to change, and the game against App State as well as the one-third mark through the season give some hope that Vohasek and the younger Fox have acclimated to the higher level of competition, and hopefully Strowbridge is healthy in time: it’s no coincidence that he’s been fully active for UNC’s two wins and limited or inactive for the Heels’ losses.

In the game in which Clemson has struggled the most so far, it’s been their offense, not their defense, that’s been taken advantage of: Texas A&M was able to frustrate their passing and rushing offense in a game that ended up comfortably in the Tigers’ favor, but looking much more laborious than any of their others, including a visit to Syracuse. And here’s how they did it: They first frustrated Travis Etienne, who exploded against Georgia Tech in the week prior but couldn’t get anything going against the Aggies, taking 16 carries for just 51 yards. They put Lawrence on the ground, sacking him twice for huge yardage and not letting him scramble. Everything else looks bad: They couldn’t handle the backup running back, who took 11 carries at 7 yards a pop. They allowed explosive plays in the air, with completions of 30, 29, 27, and 25 yards allowed to Clemson receivers (the 27-yarder was to Etienne). But because they did those first two things, they held Clemson to just 24 points, and that’s a score that’s theoretically attainable for the Heels. UNC’s got a lot of work to do to have a chance, as I’ve said over and over. But it has to start up front, with the only place where Clemson has shown a sign of weakness so far.