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UNC vs. Miami: Three Things to Watch

An Orange Bowl and a nine-win season remain within grasp.

Western Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

A meaningful regular season finale during football season just hits different. It might not be an ACC Championship, but the North Carolina Tar Heels still have a path to the Orange Bowl on January 2.

A berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl will be a significant stepping stone for a program with lofty preseason expectations and have spent 10 of 14 weeks ranked in the AP Poll.

However, top 10 Miami has their eye on a New Year’s Six Bowl, as well as a shot at their second 10-win season since joining the ACC.

Consequential games during December. This is what the players signed up for, and now they have their shot. Here are three things to watch as UNC seeks their eighth win of the season.

Containing Miami’s Offensive Weapons

Each loss this season had a similar factor: a dual-threat quarterback. Once again, the Heels find themselves lining up against another QB that can make plays with his feet.

The X-factor this week is Chazz Surratt containing Miami quarterback D’Eriq King.

And for good reason. King has the most rushing attempts on the Hurricanes, one ahead of running back Cam’Ron Harris. On 111 attempts, King has rushed for 467 yards and four touchdowns.

Harris is leading the Hurricanes with 567 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground to make this a formidable rushing duo.

However, there cannot be sole focus on the running game from the Tar Heel defenders. The Hurricanes’ passing attack actually ranks higher in the ACC than its running game.

Miami has a lot of targets down the field for King, and Carolina head coach Mack Brown point this out in his press conference Monday:

Mike Harley is one of the best receivers we faced. He’s tall, he can fly. He’s really good in space with the ball. They’ve got two of the best tight ends.

Harley leads Miami with 43 receptions, 653 receiving yards, and five receiving touchdowns. The other primary targets, Mark Pope, Dee Wiggins, Brevin Jordan, and Will Mallory have pulled in 250 to 383 yards each on the season with at least a couple touchdowns.

This Saturday will be a tough test for the UNC defenders, especially with the Hurricanes coming off a 48-0 victory last week against Duke.

Running Back Resurgence

For the Tar Heels to win this weekend, it will likely need to be on the side of a high-scoring shootout rather than grind-it-out defensive battle.

Miami’s strength is defense, and if the UNC offense can keep the Hurricanes on their heels, Carolina will have a chance for victory.

One component that is necessary for the offensive to run at optimum efficiency is the running game. An active running game is important on Saturday for a couple reasons.

Against Notre Dame, Carolina gained 55 net rushing yards in the first half. Even worse, only 32 net yards were gained in the second half.

Carolina did not have much of any offense in the second half versus Notre Dame, but some success on the ground might have lessened the burden on Sam Howell to make things happen.

An effective running game keeps the defense honest, and when the secondary starts to creep up in the box, the passing game can stretch the field. The Tar Heels will attempt to make this happen against Miami.

The other reason the running game needs to make plays Saturday is because of the Miami defensive backs and linebackers with their pass defense.

When asked about the Hurricanes’ defense, UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said, “Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. They track the ball very, very well.”

Miami leads the ACC in passing yards allowed per yard. The Hurricanes are allowing the third-fewest passing yards per game, and are tied for fourth-fewest passing TDs in the league.

If the passing attack cannot make it happen, the offense falls squarely on the shoulders of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams.

On the Road Again

Last year in the home opener against Miami, the crowd at Kenan Memorial Stadium made a difference in that ball game.

This year, the opponent’s crowd will not provide the home field advantage.

At this point in the season, college teams traveling during the time of COVID-19 it is not a talking point, but a fact of life if you want to play football.

The Tar Heels are 1-2 outside the state of North Carolina this season, and this away game in Miami Gardens will be the longest trip of the season so far.

Brown was asked if the team was preparing for this away game differently than the others this season:

The two road games we’ve lost have been night games. So, the number one thing you do with the pandemic and your road games is stay safe. And we’ve been able to do that. I mean, we wear N-95 masks. It’s required. We wear them on the bus when we’re going to the airport, we wear them on the plane. You can’t eat or drink on the plane or on the bus on the way to the airport. You have to hydrate before, you have to hydrate when you get off. We’re trying not to spend - we thought maybe we spent too much time at the hotel at Florida State. So, we’re going later to Miami to try to get in late enough just to get there and go to bed for a 3:30 game the next day. But the most important thing is that you have to stay safe. That’s what the pandemic has been about and our medical staff and our trainers, they’ve really taken care of our guys and our guys have been good with the guidelines. Other than that, we’ve looked at everything.

There will be some changes to the travel logistics, and hopefully this puts the players in a position that can perform their best under the conditions provided.