Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. Miami

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina travels to sunny South Florida with hopes of defeating No. 25 Miami for the fourth straight season on Saturday at Sun Life Stadium (7:30pm/ESPN2).

The Tar Heels (4-2, 2-1 ACC) enters the 14th meeting between these two programs as a 6.5-point underdog, but it does help that UNC is 5-1 against the spread when playing the Hurricanes (4-2, 2-1 ACC) over the past decade. North Carolina holds a 8-5 advantage in the series, winning three straight and four of the last six.

"They've got our number now, and we've got to find a way to change it," Miami coach Randy Shannon said.

North Carolina head coach Butch Davis was an assistant coach for the Hurricanes during Shannon's five seasons as a player at Miami from 1984-88. Shannon also coached linebackers under Davis from 1995-97.

"The past couple of years we've played really good games against them," UNC quarterback T.J. Yates said. "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."

The national media has harped this week on turnovers playing a critical role in UNC's current three-game winning streak over the Hurricanes, noting a 10-to-1 mark in favor of the Tar Heels. But to label those turnovers as the primary reason for North Carolina's victories would be incorrect. In '07, for example, UNC led Miami 27-0 before either team committed a turnover, and the Tar Heels did not score any points on either of the Hurricanes' turnovers in the 28-24 Ooowin two years ago in Miami Gardens.

North Carolina did take advantage of a 4-to-1 turnover margin in last season's 33-24 victory, however, returning a pair of Jacory Harris interceptions for touchdowns in building a 30-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Harris (104-of-200 passing, 1,344 yards, 11 TD, 9 INT) has battled interceptions and nagging shoulder and groin injuries this fall. In Miami's two losses to Ohio State and Florida State, Harris threw five interceptions against just one touchdown.

Harris will encounter a Tar Heel squad on Saturday that ranks 22nd nationally in pass defense (177.5 ypg) and 18th in pass efficiency defense (107.3), while boasting seven interceptions in the red zone.

"He has 10 quarters with only one interception, so he's Oooimproving," Shannon said earlier this week.

Yates, on the other hand, has only thrown one interception all season long and leads the country with the lowest interception percentage at 0.55 (one in 182 attempts). The fifth-year senior (121-of-182 passing, 1,495 yards, 11 TD) lost his top receiving threat when tight end Zack Pianalto broke the fibula in his right leg at Virginia last Saturday, but junior wide receiver Dwight Jones delivered a breakout performance against the Cavaliers with seven catches for 198 yards and two touchdowns.

Yates has also benefitted from an experienced offensive line and the emergence of fifth-year senior running back Johnny White (464 yards, 4 TD). The Asheville, N.C. native's effectiveness has allowed the UNC coaching staff to seriously consider red-shirting Ryan Houston, who was cleared to play last week after missing five games due to his involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation.

North Carolina currently ranks 63rd nationally in total offense (376.8 yards per game), which respresents a dramatic improvement from its 108th position (307.7 ypg) in ‘09. As a result, the Tar Heels are scoring nearly five more points per contest (28.6 ppg, up from 23.7 ppg in ‘09).

That scoring is also boosted by the fact that North Carolina leads the ACC and ranks seventh nationally in turnover margin (plus-1.17).

Miami counters with the nation's second-ranked pass efficiency defense (86.97) and fourth-ranked pass defense (150.7 ypg). The Hurricanes are also tied for 16th nationally in red zone defense, allowing scores on 19 of 26 drives (11 TD, 8 FG).

But the primary reason for Miami's success in the passing game is its ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Hurricanes rank fourth nationally in sacks (3.33 per game) and first in tackles for loss (9.5). Defensive end Olivier Vernon leads the charge with 19 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks this season.

"Anytime a secondary is having a huge amount of success, it probably starts up front," Davis said. "You can take four superstar All-American secondary guys, but if the quarterback has all day long to throw the ball, those guys struggle. At Miami, they've got really good defensive linemen, guys who are putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback."

A win on Saturday would move North Carolina solidly into the Coastal Division race and would give the Tar Heels their first five-game winning streak since 2001.


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