While the media spotlight has focused on the Tar Heel football program for the past 10 weeks, very little of the coverage has actually included the pigskin. Senior defensive backs Kendric Burney (six games) and Deunta Williams (four games) received the program's first official suspensions on Wednesday for their role in the ongoing NCAA investigation.
Ten other players are still waiting to learn how soon they can return to the football field, including future NFL draft picks in defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and wide receiver Greg Little. In all, seven starters and five key reserves will miss their third game of the season on Saturday.
But despite the fan base and media keeping their attention glued to the investigation, the remaining Tar Heels are intent on looking forward while refusing to live in the past.
"That's old news," linebacker Kevin Reddick said. "We've just got to go out there and play. We all got recruited the same way. Obviously, you were good enough to come here if you were recruited, so everybody's just got to step up and play."
Credit the UNC coaching staff with shielding the players as much as possible from the intense heat of the situation, while also preparing every player on the roster to be ready to step in when needed.
"You talk to your football team at the beginning of the season and you talk all of the time about how there's going to be uncertain things that are going to happen," head coach Butch Davis said. "You never expect that it would be to this magnitude, but every kid on this football team is one sprained ankle away from all of sudden you may have been playing 10 plays and now you're playing 50 plays, and hopefully they prepare accordingly."
With six defensive starters and a handful of backups missing from the rotation, coordinator Everett Withers's unit has played well enough to give North Carolina a chance to win in its first two games, despite allowing 380.5 yards (81st nationally) and 30.0 points (91st) per contest. The Tar Heels have struggled to put much pressure on opposing backfields, ranking 105th nationally in tackles for loss (4.0) and 118th in sacks (0.5).
True freshman cornerback Tre Boston (10 tackles, INT, 2 FF) will lead a young and inexperienced secondary against Rutgers sophomore quarterback Tom Savage (17-of-34 passing, 220 yards, TD, INT) and a Scarlet Knights offense that ranks 113th nationally in passing offense (125.0 ypg).
"I'm not going to sit here and say we're going to take shots," Savage told the Star-Ledger earlier this week. "After watching the film, their second-team secondary (now the starting group) isn't really a weakness for them. I've watched a lot of film and there's not too much of a difference. They have some good athletes back there."
Rutgers had to replace three starters along the offensive line from '09, including second-team All-America Anthony Davis at left tackle, and that transition has not gone well through the first two weeks of the season. Combine that with starting tailback Joe Martinek (137 yards, TD) remaining a gametime decision after suffering a left ankle sprain against Florida International, and it's easy to understand why the Rutgers coaching staff is scrambling to plug the various holes on offense.
"We're trying to develop guys," Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano said. "We had a lot of change in our offensive line. Our oldest receiver is a redshirt sophomore. We have a sophomore quarterback. One of our top two tailbacks is a freshman… All you can do is keep teaching guys so it's not the first time they're seeing something. Unfortunately, when you have young guys, that's what happens. [The defense] changes coverage or changes a front, and they have no recall, no cumulative reps to call upon."
Both teams' strengths lie on the other side of the ball. Fifth-year senior quarterback T.J. Yates (46-of-70 passing, 621 yards, 4 TD) leads the ACC and ranks 13th nationally in total offense (296.5 ypg), despite an inconsistent ground game (83.5 ypg) that has been hit hard with suspensions – expected starter Shaun Draughn sat out the season opener, while battering ram Ryan Houston will miss his third game on Saturday.
Third-string option Johnny White (25 carries, 142 yards, TD) remains in the starting role against Rutgers. Tight end Zack Pianalto (15 catches, 136 yards) and wide receivers Erik Highsmith (seven catches, 107 yards, 2 TD) and Jhay Boyd (six catches, 221 yards, TD) provide legitimate options for Yates in the passing game.
Rutgers counters with the nation's 17th-ranked defense (263.5 ypg), allowing just seven points (3rd nationally) and 96.0 rushing yards (27th) per game. The Scarlet Knights's aggressive approach has yielded six takeaways and 10 tackles for loss in their first two victories, which places a significant amount of pressure on a North Carolina offensive line that is allowing 2.5 sacks per contest (87th).
But for the Tar Heels, it doesn't matter how they win on Saturday, only that they win.
"We've got to get this win – this has got to be a big win for us," Reddick said. "It's not a conference game, but it's the next game… We're not sad or anything. We're mad because we're losing."
A loss on Saturday would drop North Carolina to 0-3 on the season, the worst start since John Bunting's 2003 squad lost its first five games.