Countdown to Kickoff: Miami

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina welcomes the Miami Hurricanes to Kenan Stadium on Saturday for the first of six straight ACC games to close out the 2011 regular season. Kickoff is set for 12:30pm (ACCN).

The Tar Heels (5-1) enter the 15th meeting between these two programs as a 3.0-point favorite. UNC owns an 8-6 overall mark over Miami (2-3), including a 4-3 advantage since the Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004. Miami is 0-4 against the Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium.

UNC head coach Everett Withers alluded to similarities between these two teams earlier this week, beginning with offensive and defensive schemes and including the level of respect between the coaching staffs.

"It's the best team we're having to face this year thus far on our schedule and has the best personnel from top to bottom, clearly, of any team that we faced this year," Miami head coach Al Golden said. "So it's a great challenge."

Withers, as usual, was more to the point in his comments praising the Hurricanes, saying, "Boy, you don't want to take this group lightly at all. This is a talented football team."

The Tar Heels had won three straight in the series before dropping last season's contest, 33-10. There were 23 scholarship players unavailable for North Carolina by the end of that defeat last October due to suspensions and injuries.

Golden has encountered similar issues in his first season in Coral Gables. Following a Yahoo! Sports investigative article linking booster Nevin Shapiro with 73 Miami athletes, eight of the 12 current players who accepted extra benefits – all starters – missed at least one game, including quarterback Jacory Harris (one game), defensive end Olivier Vernon (six games) and safety Ray Ray Armstrong (four games).

Injuries have also crept in during the first six weeks of the season for the Hurricanes. Eight players are out for Saturday's game, but Miami is expected to return defensive ends Jalen Grimble and Adewale Ojomo to a depleted line.

Miami's defense ranks 97th in rushing defense (196.2 ypg), 89th in pass efficiency defense (137.4) and 82nd in total defense (402.0 ypg) as Golden's staff struggled to balance the injuries and suspensions. Virginia Tech piled up 38 points and 482 total yards of offense is last weekend's victory over the Hurricanes.

When asked by a reporter if Miami's offense needed average 30 or more points a game to win moving forward, Golden responded, "I don't think there's any question."

The Hurricane's offense is certainly capable with quarterback Jacory Harris (62-of-92 passing, 837 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT), running back Lamar Miller (135.4 yards per game, 3rd nationally) and wide receiver/kick returner Travis Benjamin (145.7 all-purpose yards per game) providing big-play potential.

Miller entered the Miami record books by becoming the first running back to reach the 100-yard mark in the first five games of a season after rushing for 166 yards against Virginia Tech. The red-shirt sophomore boasts nine plays of 25 yards or longer this season.

"He's got long speed," Golden said. "He's 215 pounds. He can make guys miss and change direction, but he can also lower his pass. So he's got a lot of qualities that can make for a really good running back. We've got to get him better in pass protection, and we've got to make sure he uses a stiff arm a little bit better so he's not taking the blows as much as he has been taking them."

North Carolina ranks 39th nationally against the run in giving up 119.2 yards per game, but the Tar Heels have struggled at times in their last four outings, allowing their opponents to average 4.3 yards per rush.

"You have to do a great job of fitting their run game," Withers said. "Their run game is a lot like ours. They will shift, they will motion, they will give you formations and they're just trying to get you to misfit the run."

UNC not only has a similar rushing scheme, it has a similarly talented running back in Gio Bernard. He leads all freshman running backs in the country with 109.5 yards per game and ranks 19th overall. Bernard has already scored more touchdowns through six games (8) than UNC leading rusher Johnny White did in '10 (7).

Bernard's play has overshadowed quarterback Bryn Renner's growth in recent weeks. The red-shirt sophomore has not thrown an interception in three of his last four games after throwing four in his first two outings and currently leads the ACC and ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency (177.6).

Renner has completed 74.4 percent of his passes (99-of-133) for 1,305 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.

"The whole offseason [offensive coordinator John] Shoop really preached that to me – completion percentage," Renner said. "He's done a great job of getting us into plays where it's easy for me just to get the ball out of my hands quick. Throwing to the guys that we have at receiver and then swinging it out to Giovani Bernard, you're lucky."

A win on Saturday would improve UNC's record to 6-1 for the first time since 1997 and make the Tar Heels bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season.

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