San Diego State represents the first true challenge on the schedule for UNC this fall. UNC head coach Larry Fedora acknowledged on Monday the significant step up in the level of competition from his team’s Week 1 opponent in Liberty. San Diego State hasn’t taken on an ACC opponent since playing and losing to UNC in the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl. This is a team, however, that has a solid offense and a complex defensive scheme, both of which could cause problems for the Tar Heels.
Fedora also acknowledged that head coach Rocky Long’s team is similar to his own in that both programs are looking to avoid having another slow start to the season. San Diego State started 0-3 in 2013, but managed to get off on the right foot with a 38-7 home victory over Northern Arizona on Saturday. The Aztecs delivered a balanced offensive approach in their pro-style scheme - 204 passing yards and 194 passing yards – and held the Lumberjacks to 312 yards of offense. Quarterback Quinn Kaehler is in his second year as a starter, but missed all of spring practice with an elbow injury. Even though Kaehler didn’t have a great showing in the opener (18-29, 205 yards, TD, INT), the senior should be able to fill the role of game manager as he relies on Biletnikoff Award Watch List wide receiver Ezell Ruffin (4 catches, 53 yards last week; 1,136 yards in 2013) and a multi-faceted duo of running backs.
On defense, Long’s 3-3-5 scheme is surprisingly balanced. Playing in a pass-heavy league, it makes sense that the base defense employs five defensive backs. Despite the 3-3 front, the defense has been effective against the run in recent years, holding opponents to under 3.4 yards per carry in 2013. That trend continued in the home opener as the Aztec defense surrendered an average of 3.5 yards per carry on 36 attempts. The Northern Arizona offense may not be the best barometer of how good San Diego State’s defense potentially is, but the Aztecs are used to facing offenses that can put up points. Four teams in the Mountain West averaged more than 30 points per game in 2013, which means that this defense will not be intimidated by Fedora’s no-huddle spread.
San Diego State's roster includes 15 JUCOs and transfers, a trend that helps explain 11 first-time starters in its season opener.
"I think our corners and our defensive line are the strength of the defense right now. I thought it was going to be the front seven obviously, but since we have quality linebackers that aren't 100 percent, I think our linebackers are a little shaky. We've got good depth at the defensive line, we're bigger than we've been and they've been performing well in practice." – Long
“They fly around and move around and move around pretty good. They’re not a big defensive line, but they’re moving constantly. There will be times in the game where they never put a hand on the ground on the defensive side of the ball. You won’t know who is coming where. It’s unique in what they do. It will be difficult for our offensive line to figure those things out at the snap of the ball.” - Fedora on the challenges posed by Long’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme
UNC’s Offensive Line vs. San Diego State’s Defensive Line
Fedora graded his line’s play as a ‘C’ following the season opener, which is understandable considering UNC’s inexperience up front. This week will be an excellent litmus test for where this unit truly stands. SDSU’s three-man front is the beating heart of its defense. The line will be without former USC signee defensive tackle Christian Heyward for Saturday’s game, but still possesses a returning starter in senior defensive tackle Dontrell Onuoha and numerous options across the line, including starting defensive end Jon Sanchez, that allow this front six to get creative with its blitz packages.
UNC’s Defense vs. San Diego State’s Running Game
In the opening win over Northern Arizona, San Diego State’s rushing attack looked just fine without all-Big West running back Adam Muema (265 carries, 1,244 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013). Aztec ball carriers combined for 194 yards rushing and averaged 5.2 yards a carry as they dominated the game. The majority of those carries went to newly minted starter Donnel Pumphrey, who finished with 119 yards rushing on 19 carries. Pumphrey, who is on the Doak Walker Watch List after rushing for 750 yards last season, is built in the scat-back mold at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds. The offense also got 45 yards on 11 carries from junior Chase Price last week. If this ground attack can find that kind of balance, then the UNC front seven could be tested in prime time.
Aztecs Hunting for East Coast Win
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