The Tar Heels and Tigers enter Saturday's contest with identical records and contrasting degrees of momentum. After dropping a pair of 30-24 losses to LSU and Georgia Tech to open the season, North Carolina defeated Rutgers, 17-13, in New Jersey before routing East Carolina last Saturday, 42-17. The Tigers, on the other hand, have lost two straight.
UNC defensive coordinator Everett Withers's unit has improved with each passing week, holding its past two opponents to a 295.5-yards-per-game average. UNC received a boost last weekend with the return of starting strong safety Da'Norris Searcy from suspension due to his involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation, and free safety Deunta Williams, a first-team All-ACC selection in '09, returns to the starting lineup this week after serving a four-game suspension for receiving extra benefits.
"[Williams] is a great leader," junior defensive tackle Tydreke Powell said. "He brings effort and everybody follows him. When he's playing safety, he's running sideline-to-sideline and everyone feeds off his effort."
But the significance of Williams's return stretches beyond the defensive lineup – it also boosts UNC's coverage units that have struggled depth issues, ranking 83rd in kickoff return yardage defense and 111th in punt return yardage defense.
"Probably one of the biggest impacts has got to be the fact that any time you add someone back as in the case of Da'Norris and now with Deunta , hopefully it will free up guys for the potential for them to add contribution on special teams," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "It's an area where we've been paper thin throughout the first four games of the season. We were having to burn red shirt years and play a lot of young, inexperienced players. Hopefully this will give us a chance to add some more experience to those special teams."
Clemson has leaned heavily on the tandem of Andre Ellington (380 yards, 7 TD) and Jamie Harper (211 yards, TD) at running back, but quarterback Kyle Parker (49-of-93 passing, 652 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) has struggled without any legitimate options at wide receiver. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney indicated earlier this week that the staff had contemplated benching Parker in favor of Tajh Boyd during the third qaurter of last Saturday's loss to Miami.
But on the opposite side of the field, North Carolina has benefitted from the strong play of its quarterback, fifth-year senior T.J. Yates (86-of-126 passing for 1,006 yards, 7 TD, INT). The Marietta, Ga. native ranks 44th nationally in total offense (241.0 ypg) and 23rd in passing efficiency (152.1).
Tight end Zack Pianalto (26 catches, 251 yards) continues to be Yates's preferred target, but the emergence of Johnny White and the return of Shaun Draughn at running back has given balance to an offense that has struggled in that regard in recent years. The Tar Heels are averaging 165.7 rushing yards over its past three games.
White was criticized early in his career for going down easy after initial contact, but serious gains in the strength and conditioning program has allowed the fifth-year senior to absorb hits and keep moving forward.
"Sometimes I do surprise myself," White said. "Sometimes I really don't realize that I broke tackles. I feel like I was just running, but then when I look back on film, I see them."
White has churned out 318 yards and two touchdowns through four games, and stands just 81 yards shy of equaling his team-high mark of '07. The odds would appear to be in White's favor this weekend against a Clemson defense that ranks 85th nationally in total defense (385.3 ypg) and 92nd in rushing defense (181.3 ypg).
"We're an average defense right now," Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele told the Associated Press this week. "We are what the numbers say we are. We're 2-2. We've played ineffective, in terms of the numbers."
Regardless, the Tigers boast a wealth of NFL-level talent on defense in the form of safety DeAndre McDaniel (28 tackles), cornerback Marcus Gilchrist (16 tkl, INT) and defensive end Da'Quan Bowers (24 tkl, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks).
Saturday's contest marks Butch Davis's first-ever meeting with the Tigers in his 36-year coaching career.