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UNC Football vs Clemson: Three Things to Watch

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The defending national champions come to town, but miracles do happen. Right?

Appalachian State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Alright folks. Clemson comes to town. They’re the defending national champions with a future first-round NFL draft pick in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the reigning ACC player of the year in running back Travis Etienne. They bring their 4-0 record into Kenan Stadium looking to avoid their first loss of the season. North Carolina will put their 2-2 record on the line and try and avoid falling below .500 for the first time all season.

Look. We all know miracles can happen. A win for the Heels would qualify as a borderline miracle. Here are three things to watch on Saturday that could shape the final outcome.

Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon

Etienne is the reigning ACC Player of the Year. As a sophomore he ran the ball 204 times for 1.658 yards, 24 touchdowns, and averaged 8.1 yards per carry. This season he has gained 395 yards on 53 carries, found the end zone four times, and is averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Those numbers aren’t on pace to be quite as gaudy as last season, but three of their four games have been decided by 38 points, 35 points, and 40 points. There hasn’t been a need to rely on his NFL-caliber skills.

Instead, Clemson has given sophomore RB Lyn-J Dixon 33 carries to make up the difference. All Dixon has done is gained 220 yards and an average of 6.7 YPC. He also has three touchdowns. Between the two running backs, Clemson has a total of 86 carries, 615 yards, 7 touchdowns, and an average of 7.1 YPC. So, Clemson has that going for them.

Meanwhile, UNC ranks 96th in total rushing yards allowed (690), 95th in yards allowed per carry (4.57), 85th in total rushing yards per game (172.5), and are tied for 89th in rushing touchdowns allowed (7). The Heels also have only forced one fumble and have recovered any fumbles. Simply put, this math does not favor UNC. Akil also touched on the run defense issues yesterday.

Defensive Disruption

Through the first two games, North Carolina tallied 7 sacks and 15 tackles for loss against South Carolina and Miami. In the following two games those numbers dropped to 3 and 12. Some of that can be explained by the injury that has limited Jason Strowbridge the past two weeks.

However, in that same time, the linebacker corps has returned to full strength. The defensive backs have four weeks of experience in the new scheme. The amount of missed tackles in the backfield has led to back-breaking plays. The output over the past two games falls below the acceptable standard to play winning football.

It’s going to take a year or two to gain the depth needed to fully maximize Jay Bateman’s schemes, but with just 10 sacks through four games, North Carolina is actually on pace to record fewer sacks than last year when they recorded 32 QB takedowns.

Takeaways and Turnovers

Turnovers have led to 21 points in the last two games. Against Wake, a Javonte Williams fumble led a short 20-yard field. Against App State, a scoop and score off a Sam Howell strip sack was followed by a 30-yard short field thanks to a Howell interception. Those were critical possessions the Heels would love to have back.

The point differential theoretically fell anywhere from a 21 to a 42-point swing. Through four games North Carolina has committed five turnovers (2 INTS, 3 fumbles), while gathering four takeaways (all interceptions). Two of those forced turnovers were against South Carolina as the Gamecocks tried to rally late. That’s just two turnovers in the last 12 quarters of play.

Clemson, on the other hand, has committed eight turnovers (6 INTs, 2 fumbles). Five of those are interceptions are by Trevor Lawrence. That would typically be a troublesome stat. So far, those errors have been negated by the Tiger defense creating eight turnovers – five interceptions and three fumbles recoveries. Keeping that differential at +/-0 is a healthy way to avoid upsets.

If UNC has any prayer of shocking the college football landscape, they’ll have to avoid turnovers while gaining a few free possessions along the way.