After a couple of long weeks, the North Carolina Tar Heels are back in action this Saturday versus Boston College.
The game against Syracuse offered just a small glimpse of this UNC squad, and fans are curious how the team will respond after such a long hiatus.
The oddsmakers and network executives are expecting Carolina to come out of this two-week break just fine. The Tar Heels are a 14-point favorite and the game be the mid-afternoon national broadcast on ABC.
But the Tar Heels still lack 2020 game experience. UNC is one of three teams in the ACC that have played just one game this season. With Boston College sitting at 2-0, there is a lot on the line this weekend.
While you watch this game Saturday afternoon, there will be much to absorb as this game may have the feel of a Week 1 kickoff. Here are three things to key an eye on as Carolina travels to Boston College for their second game of the year.
New Look in the Defensive Backfield
As widely reported, senior safety Myles Wolfolk was ruled academically ineligible on September 17 after falling behind on graduate course work. Trey Morrison is slotted to start in replace of Wolfolk.
After injuries in the secondary last season forced underclassmen onto the field, the Carolina defensive back corps have more quality depth this season.
According to co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, the defensive backs were already “cross-training” at various positions, including between safeties, corners, and nickel.
This strategy was not just in case of injuries. DUring the coordinators press conference this week, Bateman said the COVID situation was a major influence on cross-training:
We could find out on Friday these five kids can’t play. And so you can’t just throw your arms up and say, “Oh, well, gosh, we don’t have any of these guys.” You better have some answers. So we’ve got packages that involve one safety and three safeties, three outside backers, and no outside backers. Because you better have a way to to go play and compete and get your best guys in the field.
This is good news from the coaching staff considering how quickly the team situation has change with the enhanced safety protocols.
Now, it is up to the secondary to put that practice and cross-training to the test. So far in 2020, the Eagles have relied heavily on their passing attack, averaging 255 yards per game.
The BC quarterback, Phil Jurkovec, is a talented transfer from Notre Dame. Although he struggled at times against Texas State, he does have a reliable target in tight end Hunter Long.
Long ranks third in the ACC with 16 receptions and sixth with 174 yards. His two touchdowns in 2020 already match his total from last season.
The Tar Heels must contain Long and sophomore receiver Zay Flowers, who had a big day in their opener against Duke, and they will pose a formidable challenge to the retooled secondary.
Pressure Up Front
Lead by left tackle Zion Johnson and right guard Ben Petrula, one of the strengths of Boston College coming into the season was their offensive line.
However, with eight sacks allowed in two games, including six against a lowly Duke defense, the BC offensive line is not performing as expected.
This presents an opportunity for a Tar Heel front seven that played very well against Syracuse.
Tomari Fox, Ray Vohasek, and Jahlil Taylor were described by head coach Mack Brown as “disruptors.” Add in Tomon Fox, that can be a down lineman from his outside linebacker position, and these Tar Heels should get some pressure on Jurkovec.
More pressure on the Eagles quarterback means less pressure on the secondary. The first game with the shifts in the positions may take some adjustment. But if last season was any indication, the secondary group can adapt to changes in personnel.
The running game for Boston College has been stagnant this season. The Eagles have managed only 2.5 yards per carry this season. With a seemingly talented offensive line corps, the running attack was expected to produce more for BC this year.
The Tar Heels do not want to have the BC rushers have their breakout game this Saturday. UNC has the health and the talent to stymie the opposing run game, and need to do so.
Will the Tar Heels Start on Time?
Carolina goes on the road for the first time this season, and it will be a much different experience.
One of the more notable precautions that will be enacted by the team is that no one will be allowed to lift their N95 mask on the buses or airplanes.
This is what Brown had to say about travel:
They’re not going to be able to drink fluids on the bus or the plane. I think it’s a two-hour flight. So we’ve got to make sure that they hydrate before and after really well and while they’re there.
Besides the trip to Miami in December, this is the longest scheduled trip for the Tar Heels this season. The no fluid policy is a curious one, and it would be interesting to see if other teams have this same policy.
Since the team is traveling on Friday, they will have enough time to get rehydrated.
But what other effects will the enhanced safety protocols during travel have on the team? It will certainly be more stressful than regular travel, and it will be the first time the team has been outside their football “bubble” since July.
Besides the travel, how much rust will the Tar Heels show? This topic has come up on this site and during Brown’s press conferences. Carolina cannot afford to be asleep at the wheel when the teams kickoff Saturday afternoon for this conference matchup.
If the Tar Heels can survive a second quarter lull like the Syracuse, their prospects for a victory will greatly improve.
When the Tar Heels return to action Saturday, what will you be keeping an eye on? Let us know in the comments below.