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Heel Tough Blog: Duke's Mayo Bowl Preview


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Thursday afternoon, the Tar Heels close out their 2021 season in Charlotte as the team hopes to close out what has been a tough season to stomach with their first win outside of Chapel Hill this year. In order to do that, the Tar Heels will have to beat the South Carolina Gamecocks for the second time in three seasons in a border battle that the Gamecocks will want badly to close out their first year under Shane Beamer. For the Tar Heels, though, their motivation should be to potentially send their greatest quarterback in program history in style.


Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

The Tar Heels are a month removed from one of the most frustrating losses in the history of the program and the hope is that this is a team that can come out motivated to finish the season on a positive note. Quarterback Sam Howell may be starting the final game of his illustrious Tar Heel career as he is looking to close out another strong season under center that saw him thrive not only through the air but on the ground. His career could come full circle if he can win this game against the Gamecocks in Charlotte the way that his career began. In the backfield, he will have the help of his 1,000 yard rusher, Ty Chandler, but this should also be used a game to find out more about the depth behind him that will need to have to play a major role in 2022. At wide receiver, Josh Downs looks to close out his fantastic sophomore season with another big game, while Antoine Green will hope to build on some positive flashes before they get ready to head into the offseason. This game may also be a great chance to get a look at some of the younger receivers that could eventually be the answer to some of the question marks that the team has at those outside receiver spots. The tight ends will also hope to close this season out strong after a much more productive year this year than the prior two under Phil Longo and this could be a game where we get more of a look at Bryson Nesbit, who looked really good in the game against Notre Dame. The ultimate key to success here, though, is the offensive line. This unit has been one of the biggest disappointments in all of college football this year based on how big of a step back this veteran unit took throughout the year. They will face a major test from this South Carolina defensive front and could really use a performance similar to what they had earlier this season against Virginia and Wake Forest against the stingy Gamecocks.

Defensively, the Tar Heels couldn’t have asked for a much better matchup in this one for this inconsistent unit. The Tar Heel defensive front should be able to get some push up front against a South Carolina offense line that has had their own struggles this season. The unit struggled with consistency, but the hope is that guys like Myles Murphy and Kaimon Rucker, who will be veteran leaders of the unit in 2022, can close their seasons strong and Des Evans can build upon the finish to the season where he began seeing more reps. At linebacker, Jeremiah Gemmel will play the final game of his college career in the same place that he got his first start and will do so alongside Cedric Gray who is the breakout player on this Tar Heel defense this season. It will also be interesting to see how they handle rotating the two true freshmen, Power Echols and RaRa Dillworth, who will likely battle to replace Gemmel this offseason. The defensive backfield continues their season-long search for consistency, mainly at safety. Trey Morrison will be playing his final game in a Tar Heel uniform and Ja’Quirous Conley is not available after the injury that he suffered against Wofford in the home finale, so that means that we will see a lot of Giovanni Biggers and Cam’Ron Kelly, the latter of which needs to rebound from a simply atrocious performance in the regular season finale. At corner, this is probably the healthiest that Storm Duck will be all season and Tony Grimes will look to close out his solid second season with a bang.

The Tar Heel special teams unit had taken a major step forward from last season prior to the regular season finale, but there is still reason to be confident in this unit. Grayson Atkins was maybe the lone bright in that loss to NC State and has round into form in the second half of this season and the kick return unit has been solid all season and handled one of the best kick returners in college football pretty well in that affair. The Tar Heel punting game also remains in solid shape although they can’t afford the breakdowns from the punt protection unit that they suffered against the Wolfpack. As for the return units, Chandler now has to step up with Conley out and the onside kick unit needs to be ready to be tested in this game after the issues they had in that regular season finale. Downs will hope to provide a spark in the punt return game, something he has done periodically so far this season.

South Carolina

The Gamecocks enter this game with one of the nation’s more depleted teams due to opt outs in bowl season and they may be even more shorthanded by some possible COVID issues according to rumors around the program. The Gamecock offense, which was already one of the nation’s lesser offensive units, is scheduled to be without their leading rusher from this season in Zaquandre White, who is headed for the NFL Draft and quarterback Jason Brown, who started each of the final four games of the regular season. Graduate assistant-turned-starting quarterback Zeb Noland will be back under center to start this one after taking over for Brown in the regular season finale against Clemson and will hope to be more successful than what he was in the snaps that he saw in the regular season. He’ll hope to have more help from a running back unit that was simply underwhelming for the majority of the season outside of White. Kevin Harris was banged early on in the season and has really been able to getting rolling after running for over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2020 and Marshawn Lloyd just hasn’t really been able to break out just yet, although, Kendall Smith of Gamecock Central told us on Tuesday that Lloyd did not practice with the team on Monday. That could mean more opportunity for a relatively unknown true freshman, Juju McDowell, according to Smith. At wide receiver, Josh Vann is expected to play in the game and will no doubt be the focus of the Tar Heel secondary and tight end Jaheim Bell is also having a solid season. Outside of that, the Gamecocks don’t have another receiver that has 250 or more receiving yards. The offensive line has been the biggest issue for the Gamecocks offense this season, as well, as the group has allowed 80.0 tackles for loss and 29.0 sacks for an offense that doesn’t really have much explosiveness to counter the negative plays.

Defensively, this Gamecock team has had a pretty nice year. Losing Kingsley “JJ” Ingabare is a tough one to swallow as he is off to the NFL, but this defensive front is still in good shape. Zacch Pickens and Jabari Ellis will lead the unit and watch for former 5✮ Jordan Burch who was playing his best football at the end of the season. At linebacker, Damani Staley is a name to watch out for with just how versatile his skillset is and Brad Johnson is a guy who will factor a lot in the run game. The strength of this unit, though, has become secondary, led by do-it-all safety Jaylan Foster, who leads the team in tackles and leads the nation in interceptions with five. Cornerback Cam Smith has also had a big season, hauling in three interceptions and 11 pass deflections as the team’s top coverage man.

The Gamecocks have a relatively sound special teams unit, as well. Parker White has had another good season for the Gamecocks this year and both Juju McDowell and Josh Vann are capable kick and punt returners respectively. Punter Kai Kroger has been solid but not spectacular this year, but the punt coverage unit is a bit of a weakness for this team.


Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 36.4 (15th)

Off. PYPG: 259.9 (39th)

Off. RYPG: 220.0 (11th)

Off. TYPG: 479.9 (9th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 45.5% (21st)

Def. PPG: 31.6 (102nd)

Def. PYPG: 237.7 (81st)

Def. RYPG: 169.9 (92nd)

Def. TYPG: 407.6 (89th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 41.1% (87th)

Sacks: 27.0 (T-63rd)

Interceptions: 11 (T-43rd)

Turnover Margin: +1 (T-55th)

South Carolina

Off. PPG: 21.3 (109th)

Off. PYPG: 197.8 (96th)

Off. RYPG: 122.4 (104th)

Off. TYPG: 320.2 (115th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 33.8% (110th)

Def. PPG: 24.3 (T-47th)

Def. PYPG: 178.8 (7th)

Def. RYPG: 178.8 (97th)

Def. TYPG: 357.6 (43rd)

Def. 3rd Down %: 42.4% (100th)

Sacks: 22.0 (T-93rd)

Interceptions: 15 (T-10th)

Turnover Margin: 0 (T-63rd)

Keys to the Game

Start Fast

This has been a major issue for the Tar Heels away from Chapel Hill all season long and getting off to a quick start, especially offensively, would be extremely beneficial here. South Carolina is not a team built to play from behind and when the Tar Heels have grabbed early significant leads early in games, the results have been pretty good this season.

Limit the Penalties

This has been a key in just about every game in the second half of the season and for good reason. The Tar Heels were penalized nine or more times and had 75 or more penalty yards in five straight games spanning from October 9th-November 11th, a stretch where they went just 2-3. The Tar Heels need to avoid giving South Carolina the extra yards and opportunities that they gave so many other teams during that stretch.

Win This One for Sam Howell and the Seniors

This hasn’t been the season that the Tar Heels were wanting and the loss to NC State put a bitter stamp on that. The lack of expected success has to make you wonder just how motivated the team will be in this one, but the goal here should be to send Sam Howell and the seniors, which have been a big part of building this program in the last three seasons, out in style.


Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Ja’Qurious Conley (knee), Dae Dae Hollins (knee), Ethan West (undisclosed)

South Carolina

OUT- Jalen Brooks (personal), Luke Doty (foot), Kingsley Enagbare (draft), Sherrod Greene (ankle), Jake Helfrich (heart surgery), Rick Sandidge (leg), Zaquandre White (draft)

QUEST- Jaylin Dickerson (ankle), Marshawn Lloyd (undisclosed), Dylan Wonnum (undisclosed)


Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB# 7 Sam Howell, So.

RB#19 Ty Chandler, Sr.

WR#83 Justin Olson, So.

WR# 3 Antoine Green, Sr.

WR#11 Josh Downs, So.

TE#84 Garrett Walston, Sr. OR #88 Kamari Morales, So.

LT#72 Asim Richards, Jr.

LG#75 Joshua Ezeudu, Jr.

C#69 Quiron Johnson, Sr.

RG#73 Marcus McKethan, Sr.

RT#74 Jordan Tucker, Sr. Defense

END#25 Kaimon Rucker, So.

NOSE#51 Raymond Vohasek, Jr.

TACKLE# 8 Myles Murphy, So.

OLB#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.

OLB#17 Chris Collins, Jr.

ILB#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Sr.

ILB#33 Cedric Gray, So.

CB#20 Tony Grimes, So.

FS#27 Giovanni Biggers, Jr.

SS# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, Jr.

CB#29 Storm Duck, So.

NB# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr. Special Teams

K#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr.

KOS#95 Jonathan Kim, Jr.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, Jr.

LS#61 Drew Little, Jr.

H#91 Ben Kiernan, Jr.

KR#19 Ty Chandler, Sr.

PR#11 Josh Downs, So.


South Carolina Offense

QB# 8 Zeb Noland, Sr.

RB#20 Kevin Harris, Jr.

WR#17 Xavier Legette, Jr.

WR# 5 Dakereon Joyner, Jr.

WR# 6 Josh Vann, Sr

TE# 9 Nick Muse, Sr.

TE# 0 Jaheim Bell, So.

LT#52 Jaylen Nichols, Jr.

LG#53 Vershon Lee, So.

C#71 Eric Douglas, Sr.

RG#54 Jovaughn Gwyn, Jr.

RT#62 Tyshawn Wannamaker, RFr. Defense

DE#15 Aaron Sterling, Sr.

NT#99 Jabari Ellis, Sr.

DT# 6 Zacch Pickens, Jr.

BUCK# 7 Jordan Strachan, Sr.

MIKE#30 Damani Staley, Sr.

WILL#19 Brad Johnson, Sr.

CB# 9 Cam Smith, So.

SS#10 RJ Roderick, Sr.

FS#12 Jaylan Foster, Sr.

CB#28 Darius Rush, Jr.

NB#29 David Spaulding, So. Special Teams

K#43 Parker White, Sr.

KOS#98 Mitch Jeter, So.

P#39 Kai Kroeger, So.

LS#59 Matthew Bailey, So.

H#39 Kai Kroeger, So.

KR#21 Juju McDowell, Fr.

PR# 6 Josh Vann, Sr.

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