It's never a good sign at the midway point of any season when newspaper columns are being written about whether or not a head coach should be fired or not, but that's exactly what Randy Shannon is facing in South Florida. Despite solid road victories over Pittsburgh (31-3) and Clemson (30-21), the Hurricanes have also suffered double-digit losses to Ohio State (36-24) and Florida State (45-17) this season, prompting a portion of the Hurricane fan base to question the program's status under Shannon, a fourth-year head coach that owns a disappointing 25-18 (13-14 ACC) record. Things didn't get any better over the weekend as Miami (4-2, 2-1 ACC) needed seven Duke turnovers to deliver a 28-13 victory over the Blue Devils.
Running back Damien Berry (539 yards, 3 TD) has been the bright spot for an offense that ranks 56th nationally (392.2 ypg), while junior quarterback Jacory Harris (104-of-200 passing, 1,344 yards, 11 TD, 9 INT) has been inconsistent at best, thanks in part to nagging shoulder and groin injuries. Linebacker Sean Spence (38 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks) leads a defense that ranks 21st nationally in total defense (305.0 ypg) and 32nd in scoring defense (19.7 ppg). A lack of discipline seems to be an inherent problem at Miami, and this season is no exception – the Hurricanes are averaging 9.2 penalties and 72.2 penalty yards per game, good for 110th nationally.
"I always put pressure on myself. People don't put pressure on me." – Shannon on his increased criticism (560 WQAM in Miami)
"The past couple of years we've played really good games against them. We feel like we've got a good beat on their scheme, as far as defensively and offensively. Coach [Butch] Davis always does a good job of getting us ready for that game in particular." – UNC quarterback T.J. Yates
"With North Carolina, it is what it is – I've been three years and we haven't beaten them once." – Miami safety Vaughn Telemaque
"[I] really don't know how good we are. We show glimpses of being really good. Then sometimes it's like, what are we doing? We're going to find out." – Shannon
Matchups to Watch
Miami's Jacory Harris vs. North Carolina's Pass Defense
Despite losing NFL-caliber talent on the front line, North Carolina's defense has continued to be the strength of the program. Everett Withers' unit ranks 33rd nationally in total defense (332.0 ypg), but it's his secondary that has surprised most observers. That group started four backups against LSU in the season opener and is still without its starting cornerbacks, but the Tar Heels have outperformed all of the expectations laid before them.
UNC ranks 22nd nationally in pass defense (177.5 ypg) and 18th in pass efficiency defense (107.3), and more impressively, has intercepted seven passes in the red zone.
Miami quarterback Jacory Harris, who has not been allowed to talk to the media for the past three weeks, has been up and down in his junior season, completing 104 of his 200 passes for 1,344 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In Miami's two losses to Ohio State and Florida State, Harris threw five interceptions against just one touchdown.
North Carolina had a similar showing against Harris last season, intercepting four passes and returning two for touchdowns.
But if Harris gets any level of protection against a UNC front line that has struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the junior has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the form of Leonard Hankerson (23 catches, 388 yards, 6 TD), LaRon Byrd (12 catches, 118 yards) and Travis Benjamin (11 catches, 165 yards, TD).
"We're versatile, so we bring a lot of mismatches to the game," Byrd said.
North Carolina's T.J. Yates vs. Miami's Pass Defense
Something is going to have to give on Saturday.
Fifth-year senior T.J. Yates has been a model of efficiency through six games, completing 121 of his 182 passes for 1,495 yards for 11 touchdowns and one interception. The Marietta, Ga. native also ranks 25th nationally in passing efficiency (154.33).
"He's just a great quarterback," Miami safety Vaughn Telemaque said. "He's dividing the ball up where everybody gets a chance to shine in the offense."
That level of production helps to explain why the Tar Heel offense ranks T-6th nationally in red zone offense, converting 22 of 24 opportunities (16 TD, 6 FG) for a 92 percent mark.
Miami, on the other hand, ranks second nationally in pass efficiency defense (86.97) and fourth in pass defense (150.7 ypg). Safety Ray-Ray Armstrong leads the defensive backfield with 22 tackles and two interceptions, but the secondary has benefitted tremendously from a front seven that ranks first in the country in tackles for loss (9.5) and fourth in sacks (3.33).
The Hurricanes are tied for 16th nationally in red zone defense, allowing scores on 19 of 26 drives (11 TD, 8 FG).
"They are very skilled athletically in the defensive backfield," Yates said. "You've got to be aware of that going in, their strengths and their weaknesses. [It's] being smart and not taking too many risks. You have to take risk sometimes, but you've just got to weigh the risks versus the rewards and live to play another down."
Yates lost his top target when tight end Zack Pianalto fractured his right fibula against Virginia, but Dwight Jones's emergence against the Cavaliers (7 catches, 198 yards, 2 TD) should help to offset the impact of that loss.