From the doom and gloom in the aftermath of the Notre Dame game to the satisfying feeling of exceeding expectations against Virginia Tech, the North Carolina Tar Heels face another challenge this weekend in Coral Gables.
Carolina’s first road ACC game is Miami’s conference opener. Besides the importance of starting league play, the Hurricanes are a bye week removed from a stunning upset by Middle Tennessee State. That’s to say this game is crucial for both teams, and you have to expect the Hurricanes to come out with a chip on their shoulder. As head coach Mack Brown said earlier this week, “We’ll have our hands full with Miami.”
Below are three things to watch Saturday afternoon versus Miami.
The Run Game
Earlier in the week, Mack Brown said, “Right now we’re not running the ball well enough on first downs, and we’re not running the ball well enough when everybody knows we’re going to run it.”
Last week against Virginia Tech, Drake Maye earned 73 of UNC’s 160 rushing yards, and tallied both of their rushing touchdowns.
The running back corps has been feast or famine.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo described this scenario:
Run game-wise, I told our O-line and our whole offense last week, and I said it on Sunday, when we run the football, whether we run it 50 times or 10, it just needs to be efficient. And that’s probably my biggest disappointment right now is that we’re not more efficient, not more consistent.
Against Virginia Tech, Omarion Hampton had 37 yards on eight carries. One of his runs went for 35 yards.
Caleb Hood had 32 yards on seven carries. One of his runs went for 18 yards.
The running back duties are still ran by committee, and as Brown said in his press conference this week, “We need someone to take over.”
Finding some rhythm, becoming more efficient, and taking some pressure of Maye are factors for this offensive unit moving into the conference schedule.
This week, the UNC offense needs to be mindful of the strength of the Miami defense: the defensive line.
While the Hurricanes have struggled to stop the pass, there has been some success stopping the run.
Despite the success through the air, the Tar Heels must find a way to become less one-dimensional on offense. Perhaps this is not the week to worry about considering Miami’s struggles on pass defense.
Nevertheless, Maye has put himself in a few concerning situations when scrambling, and those are risks that should not be taken right now.
The Miami Offense
In their last game, starting quarterback Tyler Van Dyke was benched after throwing two interceptions in the eventual loss to Middle Tennessee State.
Head coach Mario Cristobal said that they are sticking with Van Dyke this week. It will be interesting to see how the redshirt sophomore responds, especially after a bye week.
The Miami offense is more deliberate under Cristobal, and this change may not fit the playing style of Van Dyke as well as last season.
In their last game against a Power Five opponent, the Hurricanes failed to score a touchdown.
There are needed changes for Miami on offense, but if the quarterback and scheme remains the same, what does that do for the Hurricanes?
The only potential change is there are indications that Thaddius Franklin may take over the starting running back responsibilities this week.
The Carolina defense may not be in the same situation as last week, but there is an opportunity to build more confidence against an offense that is struggling.
On the season, UNC is converting 50 percent of third downs, good for 15th in the nation.
Against Virginia Tech, Carolina regressed a bit, only converted 40 percent of third down opportunities.
One reason was the third down yardage and how those were handled. Brown said, “Way too many third-and-longs and Drake saves us.”
Maye’s running ability is an asset to this offense, but the Tar Heels do not need to be in those long-yardage situations. Either through the air or on the ground, the probability of something going wrong increases as Carolina is further away from the sticks.
As relating to the point above, Maye’s unwillingness to slide or get out of bounds extends drives, but continues to be risky.
He can’t help it. He’s a gamer. But the Tar Heels need him in the game.
Another factor for success is continuing to protect Maye in the pocket.
Longo mentioned this earlier in the week:
We emphasized redzone in the offseason. That and minimizing sacks. You look at what we’re doing right now, we didn’t give a sack up in this last game, and I think we have seven on the season. So that has been a tremendous improvement.
Once again, containing the Miami D-line will be critical for victory on Saturday. If Maye continues to have protection in the pocket, good things will happen down the field versus a struggling defensive secondary.