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UNC Football vs. NC State: Three Things to Watch

Look at these factors as the Tar Heels try to bounce back against the Wolfpack.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned last week, the North Carolina Tar Heels had an unconventional opponent for a trap game.

And just like Wile E. Coyote stepping into the Acme bear trap he set himself, Carolina put themselves in such a first half bind that they could not complete the comeback despite an impressive second half performance on both sides of the ball.

This week begins a four-week stretch against long-time rivals, and there is no time to waste harping on a confusing loss at Florida State.

NC State is riding a three-game win streak and is ranked for the first time since the first week of November 2018.

The oddsmakers favor the Tar Heels by over two touchdowns on Saturday. Yet, as seen last week and many times during the course of this series, predictions on paper do not matter when UNC and the team in red meet on the gridiron.

Here are three things to watch this Saturday:

Pass Protection

During the first four games of the season, Florida State recorded three total sacks.

Against UNC, the Seminoles sacked Sam Howell four times, including the first play of the final offensive drive of the game for Carolina.

During the coordinators press conference this week, offensive coordinator Phil Longo made pass protection a point of emphasis:

I think probably that’s the area that needs the most improvement. I think we are doing a really good job run blocking. We’re doing a good job in play-action protection. I think our straight drop back protection right now is probably the area of emphasis for the week. And when and how we choose to throw those drop back shots I think will have a lot to do with keeping people off of Sam. How quickly and what plays I call in the drop-back game with regards to how quickly Sam can get rid of the football. I’ve got to help the O-line and help Sam in that respect, so we’re not sitting there holding.

For a unit that has done a good job in the run game, there is still a lot of improvement to be made during pass protection. And it is not so much the sacks themselves.

In the first quarter against Florida State, UNC faced four third down situations. In each, Carolina tried to pass, and never got a first down:

  • 3rd and 11 from the UNC 43: Howell pass incomplete to Beau Corrales.
  • 3rd and 2 from the UNC 33: Howell pass incomplete to Dyami Brown.
  • 3rd and 11 from the FSU 46: Howell pass incomplete to Javonte Williams.
  • 3rd and 7 from the FSU 31: Howell sacked for loss of 6 yards to the FSU 37.

The first third down conversion of the game came in the first drive of the second quarter on a Michael Carter run in a short yardage situation.

The second half was a different overall story about pass protection, but there were still lapses.

Part of it is play calling, and the other part is execution. At the end of the day, the Tar Heels must execute on pass protection on Saturday.

Special Teams

When looking at ESPN’s rankings for the advanced statistic “special teams efficiency,” you have to scroll down quite a bit to find Carolina.

The Tar Heels rank 74th of 77 teams in special teams efficiency.

The first three offensive drives against Florida State ended in particularly awful fashion with two blocked punts and a 34-yard nearly-blocked punt.

Mix in a missed 44-yard field goal during a furious second half comeback, and that special teams ranking is justified.

Big moments in these high-stakes rivalry games happen during special teams. The game tomorrow could change during special teams. Special teams could determine the margin between victory and defeat.

There was confidence from head coach Mack Brown that the special teams unit were beginning to turn the corner after the Virginia Tech game.

Unfortunately, the third phase has regressed. It is unclear where special teams go from here, but the Tar Heels need to fix special teams in a hurry if they intend to remain ranked after this week.

Focus on The Day

One of the most surprising facts about tomorrow’s game is that this is the first time since 1993 that both UNC and NCSU are ranked during a game against each other.

Undoubtedly, the Wolfpack are licking their chops for a Turnover Bone (SMH) and a victory over their archrivals. State is fresh in the rankings, while Carolina has tumbled quite a bit in the polls since last week’s loss.

A former Tar Heel decommit is the current ACC Linebacker of the Week and will be lining up against UNC tomorrow.

Add in that NC State has not beat Mack Brown since that ranked ‘93 matchup, and the intangibles, or at least the locker room material, might favor the Pack.

Yet, the talent and coaching staff (yes, even with those first half miscues last week) favors the Tar Heels.

Carolina cannot ease into this game, or expect it to come to them. The Tar Heels cannot look towards any future match up, or believe that their 16-point spread will just appear.

Focus on your role. Focus on how it works into the system. Limit mistakes. Follow your instincts. Do your job.

And do not forget the fundamentals, like form tackling: