University of North Carolina Preview

Playing a non-conference opponent in October, especially after a big Pac-10 win isn't highly desirable to say the least. Even ASU Coach Dirk Koetter was quoted saying: "I wish we were playing a conference game." However, the Sun Devil skipper also recognizes the fact that North Carolina isn't a team you can overlook, despite their 1-3 record. Let's meet the Tar Heels.

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Following an 8-5 2001 campaign, which was capped off with a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, optimism was in the air in Chapel Hill for this year. Nevertheless, it was guarded knowing that 13 starters (eight on defense and five on offense) were going to be lost due to graduation. Consequently, freshmen and sophomores comprise 73% of the roster. As a result, North Carolina is off to a 1-3 start, which is the identical record they had last season after four games. The team has been an enigma, losing at home to the likes of Miami (Ohio) and beating Syracuse on the road. If they are to turn on the proverbial "light switch" on like they did last year, the Sun Devils hope that it doesn't happen this weekend.

Just like ASU, North Carolina had its own quarterback saga this year. Starter Darian Durant was seriously contemplating to transfer out, but changed his mind in time for spring practice. The sophomore sizzled in his first year setting freshman school records for touchdowns (17), and passing yards (1,843) while virtually playing the whole season in a two-quarterback system. Durant's performance has had its ups and downs so far this year. He has passed for 952 yards with 58% efficiency. However, he has the same number of touchdown as he has interceptions with five. The signal caller is a dangerous runner, and is the team's second leading rusher with 205 yards on 42 carries, scoring once.

Another similarity to the Devils is a three-headed monster at running back. The trio of juniors Willie Parker and Andre' Williams and sophomore Jacque Lewis collectively rushed for over 1,100 yards in 2001. Williams and Parker were dueling back and forth for a starting position last year, but so far it's Lewis who's getting more carries than the other two combined. The second year player has run for 234 yards on 58 attempts with one score. As mentioned, the Tar Heels quarterback is a big part of their running game as well, which could be quite a challenge to ASU's defense that had problems containing a similar player in Nebraska's quarterback Jamal Lord.

Sam Aiken who has amassed 362 yards receiving for an average of 19.1 yards a game heads the North Carolina arial attack. Aiken has also scored twice. Tight end Bobby Blizzard has been nothing but frigid this season, averaging nearly 13 yards a catch, while gaining 116 yards and scoring twice. Other receivers worth noting are Chelsey Borders, a starter who has 117 yards, as well as 6-4 freshman Derrele Mitchell who has caught only five passes, but made the most of them with 121 yards, good enough for a 24.2 yard average. The Tar Heels rank 29th in the country in passing offense, Durant ranks 19th in total offense, and Aiken is 24h in passing yards.

Any defense that has only three starters returning may be in for a brutal and sharp learning curve this season. One bright spot is junior free safety Dexter Reid who leads the ACC with an average of over 13 tackles a game. Linebacker Malcolm Stewart is another defensive standout who has 39 tackles on the year, including two sacks to go along with one interception. Stewart is the only player left from the 2001 front seven. Michael Waddell, who's on the pre-season Jim Thorpe Award list, is considered one of the best cornerbacks in the country. The senior, who has 24 consecutive starts under his belt, has 14 tackles on the year and five pass breakups. The matchup between him and Shaun McDonald could be a very intriguing one to follow on Saturday.

Junior kicker Dan Orner has been a bright spot on special teams. He's 5-6 on field goals, with the longest one being 55 yards. Furthermore, he hasn't missed on his three attempts from over 50 yards. Orner is also a perfect 11-11 on PAT's. On the other hand, the punting leaves much to be desired. Junior John Lafferty is averaging only 36.7 yards a punt. Waddell, the Tar Heels' punt returner isn't faring much better than the team's punter – averaging only 4.5 yards a punt. Mitchell who has handled most of the kick returns averages a solid 20.1 yards. North Carolina allows a high number of yards per return with 24.2. Being that the Sun Devils are an excellent kickoff return team, this aspect of special teams could work in the home team's favor.

On paper North Carolina seems like a team, which is very capable offensively, but as Koetter indicated the glaring difference between both squads is the ability (or in the Tar Heels' case inability) of protecting the Football. Thus, if the visitors from Chapel Hill place the pigskin in ASU's hands that would clearly negate the talented Durant and the weapons around him. On defense, it would seem that North Carolina's team is much more vulnerable to the running game. The Tar Heels Give up 203 yards a game but is tough as nails defending the pass – averaging 196 yards a game. Oddly enough, those defensive trends could hamper the Sun Devils' offense, which has clearly shown a greater efficiency in the passing game compared to the running one. The Sun Devils claim to not be complacent after their big win in their Pac-10 opener, and that's a good thing. The Sun Devils will have to be on top of their game, in order to overcome their last non-conference opponent of the 2002 season.

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