"We're very pleased to accept an invitation to play in the 2011 Independence Bowl," Misouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel said earlier this month, following the bowl announcement. "We obviously have a history with this game, and we know first-hand how great of an experience they provide. This is also a nice fit for our program from a recruiting standpoint, and we'll certainly have a big challenge with a talented North Carolina team. We look forward to working hard over the next few weeks to prepare for what should be a great game and a great trip for our program."
This is Missouri's school-record seventh-straight bowl appearance, and the eighth in the last nine seasons under Coach Pinkel. Missouri defeated North Carolina 27-14 at Chapel Hill in 1973, and 24-3 in Columbia in 1976, in the two schools' only previous gridiron meetings. As Missouri prepared to play the Tar Heels, Coach Pinkel talked about his team's bowl game opponent.
"They're big and they're athletic," said Coach Pinkel. "They've really got a good football team. They're very talented. You know, they had a lot of things that they were dealing with. Butch Davis resigned in the middle of the summer, an interim coach, and all that goes with that. That's very difficult. They play in a very difficult league. The ACC is a very good league. I think to finish their record the way that they did is really good. You're going to see them. They're really talented. They did a great job of recruiting there. They've got a lot of good players; an all-conference running back. They've got an all-conference linebacker, all-conference defensive end. The defensive end is 6'6" 290, as a defensive end. The biggest defensive end I've ever seen. Their offensive line is mammoth. They're huge! So, they're a very good team. You'll see that. They're very, very talented."
North Carolina is playing their final game under interim coach Everett Withers, who replaced Butch Davis just six weeks before the season, and Larry Fedora has been named as Davis' permanent replacement at North Carolina.
"I'm excited for our players, especially this group of seniors, to advance to a bowl game for the fourth straight season," said Coach Withers, who will become co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. "Despite some challenging circumstances, this team continued to work hard and prepare each week for the next game. We now have a chance to win eight games for the fourth straight year and win our second consecutive bowl game."
"They're a power offense, pro offense," said Coach Pinkel, talking about North Carolina. "They've got very, very good athletes…………………………….. They run a power offense. You know, they power things in. They play-action pass. They're a very physical defensive team. They've got good size. They run very well. They're a very physical football team."
On offense, the Tar Heels are led by a trio of outstanding, record-setting playmakers, including senior WR Dwight Jones 6'4" 225, red-shirt freshman TB Giovani Bernard 5'10" 205, and sophomore QB Bryn Renner 6'3" 215.
For the first time in school history, Carolina has a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver in the same season.
Jones established a single-season school record with 79 receptions, and has 11 TD receptions, which is just one shy of the single-season school record. He averages 14.2 yards/reception, giving him a total of 1119 receiving yards on the season.
Bernard rushed for a UNC freshman record 1,222 yards. His 13 rushing TDs is just one shy of the school's freshman record. On the season, he averaged 5.4 yards/carry. North Carolina has run the football on 56% of their plays from scrimmage, and most of that is on gives to the tailback. Bernard carries the load. He's shifty, and is always a threat to break it to the outside.
Renner, who is a first-year starter, has thrown 23 TD passes, which is tied for the school record. He's completed 69% of his pass attempts, his passer efficiency rating of 161.2 ranks 9th in the country, and his 230.75 passing yards/game ranks 41st nationally. Renner's thrown 12 interceptions on the season, and he is averaging 8.99 yards/pass attempt.
A pair of junior wide receivers, Erik Highsmith 6'3" 190 (43 receptions, 4 TDs, 15.1 yards/reception) and Jheranie Boyd 6'2" 190 (11 receptions, 4 TDs, 17.9 yards/reception) are among Renner's favorite targets. Bernard is the Tar Heels' third-leading receiver, averaging 8.4 yards/reception, followed by a trio of tight ends. So, the Tar Heels like to pound the football on the ground. Then, they go up top off of play action. And, they have the athletes to get it done.
Defensively, Carolina is 14th in the nation against the run, surrendering just 106.17 rushing yards/game (3.14 yards/carry), and allowing just 9 rushing TDs all season. The Tar Heel defense features a pair of first-team All-ACC performers in senior DE Quinton Coples 6'6" 290 and senior LB Zach Brown 6'2" 230. Coples ranks fourth among active college players with 24 career sacks. He's the first repeat first-team all-conference selection at UNC since Julius Peppers in 2000 and 2001. Coples finished the season with 51 tackles, including 13 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles.
Brown led the Tar Heels with 91tackles, including 11.5 for losses and 5.5 sacks. He also had 2 interceptions, broke up 4 passes, and tied with Coples for the team lead with 3 forced fumbles.
Carolina's front seven is the strength of their defense, and there's no shortage of talent. The Tar Heel defense ranks 40th in total defense (352.92 yards/game), 90th in passing defense (246.75 yards/game), and 61st in pass efficiency defense.
I asked Missouri Offensive Coordinator, David Yost, about North Carolina's defense?
"They're a very talented defense," replied Coach Yost. "They're big! Their defensive line is bigger than anybody that we've seen this year. You could probably compare their D-ends to the guys at Iowa last year, as far as size. Their D-tackles are actually bigger than Iowa's, last year…………………………. They play a lot of guys up front. They have talent, and they're playing a lot of guys, which really helps the defense."
"Their linebackers, their probably the biggest defense that we've faced," Coach Yost continued. "And, they run really well for being so big………………………………… They're very, very talented, and their secondary is really good at what they do."
Typically, North Carolina tries to get pressure on the QB with their front four. If that works for them, they won't blitz a lot, and will play mostly zone coverage. If they're not getting pressure with their mammoth front, they'll adjust. When they do blitz, they'll likely man up in the secondary.
On the season, the Tar Heels scored 28.3 points/game, and surrendered 23.5 points/game. Yet, they managed just 3 conference wins, over Wake Forest, Virginia, and Duke.
There were a couple of common themes when Carolina won. In their 7 wins, the Tar Heels had a +7 turnover margin, and outscored their opponents 59-7 in the first quarter. In their 5 losses, the Tar Heels had a -8 turnover margin, and were outscored 37-21 in the first quarter.
[NCAA ranking in Brackets]
MISSOURI_________________ NORTH CAROLINA
472.42 [12th] ____Total Offense ___ 396.58 [52nd]
235.67 [11th] __ Rushing Offense__ 147.42 [72nd]
27_____________TDs Rushing ____________ 22
236.75 [57th] __ Passing Offense__ 249.17 [43rd]
143.83 [30th] __Passing Efficiency __159.01 [11th]
21_____________TDs Passing ____________ 23
32.17 [33rd] ___ Scoring Offense ____28.33 [57th]
382.25 [61st] ___ Total Defense____352.92 [40th]
135.00 [44th] __ Rushing Defense __106.17 [14th]
17_________ TDs Allowed Rushing__________ 9
247.25 [91st] __ Passing Defense __246.75 [90th]
125.92 [53rd] _ Pass Effic. Defense 129.44 [62nd]
17_________ TDs Allowed Passing _________ 22
23.50 [T-44th] _ Scoring Defense__ 23.50 [T-44th]
+0.17 [42nd] __ Turnover Margin____ -0.08 [67th]
15 / 8 _________ Fumbles/Lost _________24 / 11
10_________ Interceptions Thrown _________ 13
12__________Interceptions Gained _________ 13
21.22 [68th] __ Kickoff Return Avg.___24.43 [13th]
8.89 [52nd]____ Punt Return Avg. ___4.11 [109th]
36.95 [T-52nd] _ Net Punting Avg.____35.36 [84th]
2.08 [43rd] _______ Sacks By ______ 2.08 [43rd]
1.50 [40th] _____ Sacks Allowed _____2.17 [74th]
29.37 [66th] __ Avg. Time of Poss.___29:33 [68th]
37.3% [93rd] __ 3rd Down Conv. _ 38.9% [T-78th]
58.8% [T-27th] _ 4th Down Conv. _ 50.0% [T-59th]