Saturday, the Tar Heels will head to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami with a chance to take another step forward under Mack Brown. If the Tar Heels can find a way to beat the Hurricanes and Clemson can get their revenge on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the ACC Championship game, there is a legitimate opportunity that the Tar Heels could be staring down their first Orange Bowl appearance in program history. If the Tar Heels don’t want to waste one of, if not the best offense in program history, this is one that feels necessary.
The success of this 2020 Tar Heel has been heavily based on their offense and the goal will have to be to score and score often on Saturday. The Tar Heel running game has been slowed down a little after an extremely productive start to the season, but this still remains the key to this offense's success. Both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams are already over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and once again are one the doorstep of 1,000 rushing yards . When the Tar Heels have been most successful, these one of these two have exploded for a big performance and that might be what they need on Saturday. It helps that the passing game is led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Sam Howell, who just continues to close in on multiple records for a quarterback through his first two seasons. The receiving corps has been bolstered by the strong finish that Dazz Newsome is having to the season, but Dyami Brown has been a consistent threat all season long and Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown have paired nicely to fill the role that Beau Corrales left behind after going down with an injury against Florida State. The Tar Heel offensive line has had their ebbs and flows this season, but this a game where they will need to step up. With the edge rushers that Miami possesses, Jordan Tucker and Asim Richards must be able to hold their own, something they struggled to do in the three losses this season.
The Tar Heel defense has become a concern as the season has gone along, but they have shown that when they need to step up in these types of games, they have. The key to the success of this defense lies with the front four, who has been pushed around a lot since mid-season. The rotation of young guys like Kaimon Rucker and Myles Murphy has helped in the last two weeks, but the Tar Heels need production from guys like Tomon and Tomari Fox to be successful. Linebackers Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel have had up and down seasons of their own, but must be able to shake off their struggles to slow down mobile quarterbacks and fill gaps at times in this one. The secondary has been bolstered by the breakout of Tony Grimes on the outside to give the Tar Heels a solid 1-2 corner punch. The tandem of Don Chapman and Cam’Ron Kelly in the middle of the field has become a bit of a concern as the season has progressed, but the best way to eliminate any issues there is by the front four getting home.
The Tar Heels special teams unit has come along nicely as the season has progressed. Grayson Atkins hasn’t been relied on as much recently, but has come through when he’s needed to and the same can be said for Dazz Newsome in the punt return game. Punter Ben Kiernan and kickoff specialist Jonathan Kim remain as reliable as anyone on the team, as both are having tremendous sophomore seasons. The kick return unit and coverage units are still mysteries as we haven’t seen much of them this season.
The thing that has held the Hurricanes back in recent years was the lack of a dynamic quarterback. They took care of that problem this offseason when they added Houston transfer D’Eriq King, who has lived up to the hype and turned this offense into a much more consistent threat week in and week out. The Hurricanes got off to a great start on the ground, but they’ve since cooled off. Cam’Ron Harris is always a threat, though and is coming off his best game since the first two weeks of the season against Duke a week ago. At receiver, the Canes have a solid trio led by Mike Harley, but Brevin Jordan might be the biggest threat to this Tar Heel team on Saturday. The offensive line has been a little better than a year ago, but they have still allowed 26 quarterback sacks.
On defense, everything starts up front with one of the best edge rush combinations in the entire country. Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche have combined for a remarkable 28.0 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. Add in the play of Nestra Jade Silvera and Jared Harrison-Hunte and you have one of the nation’s top defensive lines. The linebacking corps has had a solid season and is led by striker Gilbert Frierson. The secondary has some solid players in the middle in Bubba Bolden and Amari Carter, but this is a unit that has allowed some yards through the air so far this season.
The Hurricanes possess one of the most sound special teams units in the ACC. Kicker Jose Borregales has one of the most reliable legs in the country and punter Lou Hedley is averaging 47.2 yards per punt. The return game hasn’t been great, but Mark Pope is still putting together some decent numbers.
Team Stats (rankings are amongst 127 FBS teams to play a game in 2020)
Off. PPG: 41.1 (12th)
Off. PYPG: 315.9 (16th)
Off. RYPG: 218.6 (19th)
Off. TYPG: 534.5 (5th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 46.9% (28th)
Def. PPG: 28.6 (63rd)
Def. PYPG: 248.9 (87th)
Def. RYPG: 155.1 (57th)
Def. TYPG: 404.0 (60th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 38.3% (50th)
Sacks: 30.0 (T-10th)
Interceptions: 7 (T-43rd)
Turnover Margin: -2 (78th)
Off. PPG: 34.9 (23rd)
Off. PYPG: 272.8 (31st)
Off. RYPG: 173.0 (61st)
Off. TYPG: 445.8 (26th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 42.5% (52nd)
Def. PPG: 22.0 (30th)
Def. PYPG: 227.1 (54th)
Def. RYPG: 139.1 (43rd)
Def. TYPG: 366.2 (44th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 36.8% (39th)
Sacks: 26.0 (T-17th)
Interceptions: 7 (T-43rd)
Turnover Margin: +7 (T-12th)
Keys To The Game
Control the Line Of Scrimmage
This was where the game against Notre Dame was won and lost and this will be the case once again on Saturday. If the Tar Heels want to have a chance in this game, they will need to be able to handle the physicality that will come their way in the trenches, especially the offensive line against Miami’s loaded defensive line. The Tar Heels will need one of the best performances of the season from both their offensive and defensive lines to win this game.
This game will feature two of the most penalized teams in the country and one would expect this to be a chippy game from what we;ve seen between the two in recent years. The Tar Heels have struggled with discipline all season, but especially in their three losses this season. If they can find a way to play smarter and limit the penalties, it could go a long way towards pulling out a victory.
Make King Beat You From the Pocket
King is far from a liability as a passer, but all three of the Tar Heels losses this season have come against mobile quarterbacks, a group that has really hurt this Tar Heel defense. Keeping King home will be a tough task, but this is the game where the Tar Heels will need their defensive line and linebackers to work together to keep him from getting out and making plays in open space.
OUT- Kedrick Bingley-Jones (leg), Beau Corrales (lower body), Stephen Gosnell (lower body), Ed Montilus (upper body), Ty Murray (undisclosed), Ethan West (undisclosed)
QUEST- Josh Downs (upper body), Storm Duck (lower body), Patrice Rene (upper body)
OUT- Al Blades Jr. (heart), Isaiah Walker Jr. (eligibility), Avante Williams (undisclosed)
QUEST- Jared Harrison-Hunte (illness), Larry Hodges (illness), Michael Redding III (undisclosed), Tyler Van Dyke (undisclosed)
Projected Starting Lineups
Tar Heels Offense
QB# 7 Sam Howell, So
.RB# 8 Michael Carter, Sr. OR #25 Javonte Williams, Jr.
WR# 2 Dyami Brown, Jr.