The Tar Heels will be back in Kenan Stadium again on Saturday as they look to pick up their first big win of the season and hit the halfway point of the season undefeated. In order to do that, the team will have to take down a Miami squad that will be looking for a bounceback after one of the most inexplicable losses in the history of the sport.
The Tar Heels enter this game off of their most complete performance in years. Quarterback Drake Maye has really settled in after an uneven start to the season and now has himself back in the Heisman Trophy discussion after one of the best performances of his career. The group of pass catchers appears to have taken a bit of a blow this week with the rumors of Kobe Paysour ankle injury, but this is still one of the best groups in the country. Nate McCollum has simply been tremendous since he returned to full strength after an injury that cost him the better part of the first two games. He combines with Tez Walker, who looked really good in his first game back from being ineligible, and J.J. Jones along with the three tight ends to give Maye a ton of different options to spread the ball around to. The running game was back to producing at a pretty solid level on Saturday thanks to a healthy offensive line. Willie Lampkin made his return to the lineup after missing the previous two games with a lower-body injury and continues to show why this Tar Heel staff was so smart in going after him this offseason. The rest of the unit has been better than expected, too, with Corey Gaynor and Spencer Rolland making strides in their second year with the team and Diego Pounds emerging at left tackle. Omarion Hampton and British Brooks are a very solid 1-2 punch in the backfield with Hampton being one of the best at finding the endzone this season.
Defensively, the Tar Heels have continued to prove that they are different. Up front, both Kaimon Rucker and Des Evans are having career years off the edge, especially rushing the passer. The interior of that group wasn’t great to begin the season but they will come in off their best performance in the last year and a half against Syracuse last weekend. The defensive backfield has also shown major improvement so far this year. Transfer cornerback Alijah Huzzie has simply been outstanding to begin the season, giving the Tar Heels the lockdown corner they did have last year. The safety duo of Don Chapman and Giovanni Biggers have also been a much more reliable duo on the backend of this defense than they were a year ago. The linebacker duo continues to be one of the best in the country with Cedric Gray and Power Echols having even better seasons than they did a year ago.
The special teams unit continues to have issues outside of placekicker. Last week, it was the punting unit that had issues, allowing one to be blocked which led to Ben Kiernan having to make a heroic play with his legs. The fifth-year punter may have picked up the first down, but he suffered an injury on the play that could leave the team without him this weekend. Pair that with the struggles the team was already having with the kick coverage unit and things have been rough for this group all season long. Noah Burnette is the one shining light, having nailed all seven of his field goal attempts since he’s returned to action.
The Hurricanes are trying to recover from their first loss of the season suffered last weekend that came in one of the oddest fashions ever when they chose not to kneel out the game when they had the option to and let up a game-winning deep pass to Georgia Tech. Even with that loss, this is a really good team that is coming to town. Offensively, it starts with quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who will also be looking to bounce back after his worst performance of the season and return to his form from the first four games of the season. He’ll have the help of one of the best receiving trios in the ACC with Xavier Restrepo, Jacolby George and Colbie Young who are all over 290 receiving yards already this year. The running game might be the best part of this Miami offense right now, with Henry Parrish Jr. and Donald Chaney Jr. leading the way. They have been aided by an offensive line that is the best the team has had in years. Matt Lee and Anez Cooper anchor the unit that ranks top 20 in the country in both tackles for loss and sacks allowed.
The Hurricanes boast an outstanding defense that will be the biggest challenge this Tar Heel offense has faced so far this season. The defensive front has been really good out of the gate so far this season, registering 91 of the team’s 125 total pressures. Leonard Taylor III has been outstanding in the middle, while Rueben Bain Jr. and Jahfari Harvey have looked great off the edge. The secondary has had a promising start as well. Safeties James Williams and Kamren Kitchens have been very impactful in coverage and run defense, while corner Jaden Davis has had a good year on the outside. Te’Cory Couch has pulled down three interceptions so far this year, but has allowed 215 yards and two touchdowns in coverage, too. The linebacking corps is still the weakness of the unit, but Francisco Mauioga has emerged and had a good start to the season.
The Hurricanes special teams unit is in very good shape, as well. They have one of the nation’s most dangerous kick returners in Brashard Smith and kicker Andres Borregales has been very reliable so far. Punter Dylan Joyce has been very solid himself, averaging 41.4 yards per punt on his ten punts. The team is searching for more consistency from the punt return group with Xavier Restrepo and Jacolby George having failed to produce much so far.
Off. PPG: 36.6 (T-18th)
Off. PYPG: 325.8 (11th)
Off. RYPG: 174.2 (46th)
Off. TYPG: 500.0 (9th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 56.4% (2nd)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 27.0 (T-35th)
Sacks Allowed: 11.0 (T-57th)
Def. PPG: 19.0 (T-30th)
Def. PYPG: 216.8 (54th)
Def. RYPG: 117.8 (41st)
Def. TYPG: 334.6 (35th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 36.5% (T-54th)
Tackles for A Loss: 29.0 (T-95th)
Sacks: 13.0 (T-64th)
Interceptions: 7 (T-20th)
Turnover Margin: +3 (T-30th)
Penalties Per Game: 5.0 (T-33rd)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 48.0 (54th)
Off. PPG: 39.0 (13th)
Off. PYPG: 294.8 (23rd)
Off. RYPG: 211.0 (13th)
Off. TYPG: 505.8 (7th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 50.0% (T-14th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 19.0 (T-6th)
Sacks Allowed: 5.0 (T-14th)
Def. PPG: 14.6 (12th)
Def. PYPG: 210.2 (43rd)
Def. RYPG: 58.2 (2nd)
Def. TYPG: 268.4 (9th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 37.7% (61st)
Tackles for Loss: 32.0 (T-74th)
Sacks: 12.0 (T-76th)
Interceptions: 6 (T-37th)
Turnover Margin: +1 (T-53rd)
Penalties Per Game: 7.2 (T-109th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 70.8 (121st)
Keys to the Game
Stop the Run
The Hurricanes have one of the best running games in the country so far this season and it is why their offense has been as good as it has. The Tar Heels stepped up to the challenge last week against Syracuse and they need to bring that same mindset to the game this week. The goal should be to force the Hurricanes to have to move the ball through the air with a quarterback that has been known to be turnover-prone against a pass defense that is playing very well right now.
Win the Trenches
This will be a task much easier said than done but will be important in this one. The offensive line will be tested, but they have to continue to limit the pressure on Drake Maye and open running lanes like they did early in the game last week against Syracuse. On the other side, the Tar Heels defensive line needs to win on run downs like they did last week, especially on the interior, and get pressure with their edge rushers to force Miami into mistakes.
Get Off to a Fast Start
It feels like we have been saying this for a few weeks, but with the environment that is expected for this game, it is imperative. This has a chance to be the most raucous Kenan Stadium crowd in the past decade-plus and that can be a huge advantage, especially if this game is close at the end. Getting off to a good start and keeping the crowd energized after the initial wave of excitement to begin the game will be important for the Tar Heels later tonight.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Julien Randolph (lower body)
QUEST- Gavin Blackwell (upper body), Ryan Coe (lower body), Kevin Hester Jr. (lower body), Ben Kiernan (lower body), Kobe Paysour (lower body)
OUT- Tre’Vonte Citizen (knee), Branson Deen (lower body), Samson Okunlola (lower body)
QUEST- Elijah Arroyo (knee), Jacolby George (undisclosed), Akheem Mesidor (lower body)
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Time: 7:30 PM
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)