Despite the 2,500-mile cross-country divide separating these campuses, there are distinct similarities dating back to last fall. UNC has won seven of its last eight games after a 1-5 start in 2013, while San Diego State has won nine of 11 since an 0-3 start.
The differences, however, are apparent when comparing the rosters over the past two seasons. UNC returned 15 starters, including eight on the offensive side of the ball that scored 46 of the team’s 55 touchdowns in 2013. Aztecs head coach Rocky Long is tasked with replacing 12 starters and 21 lettermen from last season’s veteran squad.
“It's always a concern when you have new players who haven't played very much,” Long said of the road trip to North Carolina. “But they should be a lot better Week 2 than they were Week 1. We were concerned going into Week 1 and they made a lot of mistakes. Hopefully, we'll eliminate a lot of those mistakes between Week 1 and Week 2."
The Tar Heels defeated Liberty, 56-29, in their season opener last weekend, while San Diego State topped Northern Arizona, 38-7.
The Aztecs will catch a break with the late start, but offensive coordinator Bob Toledo will have to adjust on the fly for a fresh quartet of defensive backs that weren’t in UNC’s Week 1 game film. Starting cornerbacks Brian Walker and Des Lawrence, along with backup cornerback M.J. Stewart and backup ram Donnie Miles, were reinstated on Sunday following their one-game suspensions.
While UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning countered the secondary absences with a slightly more conservative approach against Liberty, the Tar Heels will be able to play more man coverage against the Aztecs to allow the defensive line more time to wreak havoc for SDSU quarterback Quinn Kaehler (18-of-29 passing, 205 yards, TD, INT).
“They are a West Coast style of offense,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “They run the ball extremely well. They are very physical when they run the ball and they do a great job with their play action passes.”
Running back Donnel Pumphrey (111 yards, 2 TD) and wide receivers Eric Judge (5 catches, 51 yards) and Ezell Ruffin (4 catches, 53 yards) provide quality options at the skill positions for San Diego State. UNC will counter with its strength at the skill positions, which includes a bevy of personnel at running back, led by T.J. Logan (45 yards) and Elijah Hood (43 yards), and a blend of speed and size at wide receiver.
The Tar Heels’ most lethal offensive weapon could be quarterback Marquise Williams, who Fedora confirmed as the team’s starter on Monday. The junior signal caller completed 65.5 percent of his passes (19-of-29) for 169 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against Liberty, and ran for 52 yards and two more scores.
San Diego State’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme, which has morphed into a 4-2-5 due to injuries at linebacker, has earned praise from UNC’s coaching staff throughout the week, although the Aztecs will be tested at Kenan Stadium with eight defenders making their first career start on the road. UNC is averaging 45.0 points in 15 games at home under Fedora.
"I think our defense stacks up well, especially with the game plan Coach Long implements during the week,” Aztecs linebacker Cody Galea said. “We're going to be prepared as well as we need to be scheme-wise. It's just going to be up to us to execute it."
The 8pm kickoff should provide for a festive atmosphere beneath the pines. UNC announced a sellout on Friday for the scheduled “Kenan Stadium Tar Pit Stripe Out” game, which will consist of alternating sections of black and blue colors.
UNC having "Stripeout" on Saturday. Here's seating map that shows whether you should wear black or blue: pic.twitter.com/W3DVeVlT2G— InsideCarolina (@InsideCarolina) September 2, 2014