For all that has been made of Carolina’s continued inability to win openers against Power 5 opposition, many forget that the Heels are 4-13 in ACC openers since the turn of the century.
With half of those wins taking place in the last two seasons, here’s hoping the Tar Heels can make it three in a row when they host Louisville on Saturday in the two schools’ first gridiron matchup as ACC foes.
I wrote this about the Cardinals before the season began, and, not much has changed after one game. The Cardinals traveled to Indianapolis to beat Purdue 35-28 in a funky neutral-site game.
Having seen that game, and Carolina’s similarly-scored-but-worse-result loss to Cal, what does this key game look like?
Louisville Offense vs. Carolina Defense
Spoiler alert: everything in this matchup centers around Lamar Jackson. The reigning Heisman winner accounted for all but 39 yards of Louisville’s offensive output in Week 1, even taking roughly two-thirds of their total rushing attempts.
Carolina’s defense performed well against the run last Saturday, as Cal’s big ground gainers were quarterback scrambles. Reggie Bonnafon and Jeremy Smith combined for just 41 yards on 11 carries as the Cardinals leaned heavily on Jackson to overcome a sleepy performance.
On the surface, that would indicate that Louisville is equipped to abandon the between-the-tackles run altogether, and that is worrisome for the Heels. The defensive ends tended to over-pursue Ross Bowers, leaving the scramble game and running lanes open. That...would play to Jackson’s obvious strengths. Expect the ends to forego pressure for contain on Jackson. If he gets outside the pocket, look out—that’s where their rushing yards are coming from.
Against the pass, the Heels flipped the script on their previous two seasons and were awful against Cal. The key will be getting pressure from the tackles. As stated, Jackson puts extra stress on the defense with his top-end elusiveness and speed. The Cards’ offensive line is still perceived as a weakness after allowing 47 sacks last year, but Purdue didn’t get Jackson to the ground once on Saturday night.
With extra attention devoted to Jackson (look for Andre Smith or Cole Holcomb to work primarily as a spy), there will be open passing lanes. Jackson hit nine receivers—including five tight ends or running backs—for 8.2 yards per attempt against Purdue, meaning the Heels will effectively have seven guys to contain five receivers.
The wideouts do most of the damage. Jaylen Smith had 117 yards on eight catches, freshman Dez Fitzpatrick added 95 yards, and Traevon Samuel caught five balls for 55. Given Carolina’s issues with over-the-middle routes—drags, meshes, and sits, Samuel could have a big day out of the slot.
Priorities one, two, and three are containing Lamar Jackson. He finished 2016 with a rash of turnovers, so the best bet is to play bend-but-don’t-break and hope he bails the defense out with a couple of mistakes. If the ‘Ville continues to not bother to run between the tackles, there’s at least one less thing to worry about.
Carolina O vs. Louisville D
Purdue didn’t bother to try to run against Louisville’s veteran front. Assuming the opener’s struggles getting the ball downfield persist for the Heels, Carolina is going to have to.
For the second straight week, Carolina is facing a 3-4 front. This puts extra stress on the offensive line, as queues to where pressure is originating are harder to pick up. Cal found success walking two linebackers up and giving a “50” look, where every offensive lineman had a man lined up over the top of him.
This helps with run contain, and makes picking the man to ‘read’ on the read option tougher. Whomever Carolina trots out at quarterback is going to have to make good, tough, quick decisions. I look for Carolina to lean on Jordon Brown and Michael Carter to make hay between the tackles and hope to expand the offense off of that.
Even with some success, linebacker Stacy Thomas cleans up a lot of plays on the second level. Getting bodies to the linebacking corps (well, this is always the case) will be important.
The pass game, clearly, is going to be predicated on the quick pass. Chazz Surratt didn’t show an ability to push the ball downfield, and Brandon Harris did—but was more successful finding Cal Golden Bear defenders than Tar Heel receivers.
If the Heels are going to find sustained success on O, it will be in a very pro-style way. Rushing success to set up play action is the best shot at making chunk plays, of which the Heels had just five in Week 1. Larry Fedora said on Monday that he couldn’t remember a worse output of such plays for his offense, and Louisville’s D is...not Cal’s.
The Cardinals bring pressure from everywhere, as players from all three levels had sacks and TFL’s on Saturday. Beyond early down rushing success, Carolina is going to have to quickly identify blitzers and throw to vacated zones on the field.
Simply put, a LOT has to go right for Carolina to pull off a win in Kenan Stadium on Saturday. Here’s hoping the old cliche, “the most improvement happens between game one and game two” applies to the Heels and not the Cardinals.
A best-case scenario is a defense that forces Jackson to nickel and dime down the field, creating increased opportunities for mistakes. Meanwhile, the offense establishes the run early, and forces UL to load up the box and get some Tar Heel receivers in favorable matchups.
An A-/B+ performance keeps the Heels in the game, but its going to take one a far cry better to win.