Here we are again.
The North Carolina Tar Heels are coming off their most impressive win of the season, and will face an opponent that is nearly a two touchdown underdog to UNC.
Same ol’ scenario? Similar, but not quite.
Now, UNC’s December picture is much more in focus. Carolina is just outside of the Top 25, and after a Notre Dame overtime win over Clemson last Saturday night, the team must win out to have a shot at the ACC Championship game. Saturday’s opponent, Wake Forest, has emerged as the toughest potential test so far for the Tar Heels in 2020. The Demon Deacons are solid on both sides of the ball, and could easily be a ranked team if the two-minute drill in their second game of the season had a different conclusion.
Although there are a lot of factors to keep an eye on this Saturday, here are three things to watch when Carolina takes on Wake at Kenan Memorial Stadium this weekend.
Red Zone Defense
Wake Forest boasts the best red zone offense in the ACC. In 30 attempts, the Deacs have scored 28 times. Of those 28 scores, 20 have been touchdowns, including 17 rushing TDs. The Wake rushing combo of Kenneth Walker III and Christian Beal-Smith will be tough tests for the UNC front seven. Each back is averaging over five yards per carry this season, with Walker tallying 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Last week, a handful of youngsters on defense stepped up against Duke. Myles Murphy, Kaimon Rucker, Des Evans, and Clyde Pinder received the praise of Carolina co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman on Monday. Now that these players have proved it on the field and have been recognized publicly by the defensive coordinator, the pressure is on to keep providing meaningful contributions on defense. If they can do so, the defense will have the kind of depth they would have liked to have earlier in the season, where the defense got visibly tired towards the end of games.
The Wake Forest pass defense ranks near the top of the ACC in most key metrics. When comparing against other conference teams, the Demon Deacons are tied for the most interceptions, while allowing the second-fewest passing yards per attempt (6.6), second-fewest passing touchdowns (8), and second-fewest passing yards allowed (1,378). These stats give WF the third-best passing defense efficiency (117.7).
However, Wake Forest has not seen a passing offense like Carolina since Week 1 against Clemson. Against the Tigers, the Deacs allowed 376 yards through the air, giving up 10.4 yards per attempt. Even so, Wake Forest defense did pick off a Trevor Lawrence pass during that game. With a run defense that ranks right in the middle of the conference, limiting Sam Howell and the talented receiving corps of UNC will be a key to victory for Wake Forest.
If the passing offense for Carolina struggles, the running attack is riding high and have proved they are able to carry the offensive load. The North Carolina running backs had a field day in Durham last week, rushing for 338 yards on 47 attempts. If the trend continues against Big Four opponents, the Tar Heel rushers will outgain the passing offense.
However, Howell performing through the air against a solid defense is important to his development and critical to the team’s success down the stretch.
Flipping the Script
Head coach Mack Brown spoke about it during his press conference and radio show. Every media outlet that covers Carolina football, including ours, has covered it. And it is lurking in the mind of each fan that has followed the team this season. It will be discussed ad nauseum. Since the win against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels have been on a roller coaster of impressive wins and subsequent disappointing, and at moments head-scratching, losses.
Wake Forest will be one of, if not the best opponent Carolina has faced during this stretch, and certainly better than the teams to which UNC has already lost this season. Two factors will be different this Saturday than in the losses against Florida State and Virginia: Saturday is (1) a home game with (2) a noon kickoff.
Carolina’s two losses this season have come during primetime on the road. The COVID travel logistics play a part, as well as UNC being a relatively young team with room to grow. A win Saturday will get a monkey off this team’s back and get them in good position going into a bye week that will be followed by two of the program’s most consequential games in a long time.