Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. Clemson

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina hasn’t won its ACC opener on the road since 2000 and will have to elevate its play to break that streak against Clemson in Death Valley on Saturday (7pm, ESPNU).

The Tigers (1-2) are 14.5-point favorites over the Tar Heels (2-1). Clemson leads the all-time series, 35-19-1, and has won the last three meetings at Memorial Stadium (’03, ’06, ‘11) by an average of 24.7 points.

UNC is looking to win its ACC opener for just the second time in 14 years. The last time the Tar Heels entered October with a winning conference record was 2001, a troubling trend that has perennially forced them to wage an uphill battle in the league standings.

The recent past is of greater concern for UNC head coach Larry Fedora. His then-ranked team suffered a 70-41 thrashing at East Carolina last Saturday in what was statistically the worst defensive performance in school history. The Pirates’ point total and 789 yards of offense were both school records by a UNC opponent.

The Tar Heels have missed roughly 60 tackles in their last two games. Combine that statistic with gap integrity breakdowns to help explain UNC’s 123rd national ranking in total defense (548.0 ypg) and 118th ranking in scoring defense (42.0).

Both Fedora and associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning have stressed the importance of gang tackling this week to prevent routine plays from turning into explosive scoring plays.

“You want to get a lot of hats to the ball, but sometimes it’s going to be tough,” senior bandit Norkeithus Otis said. “It’s just getting off blocks and getting to the ball. When you get off a block, just make sure you’re running toward the ball and you’ll be there.”

The Tar Heels have responded with good energy during practice this week, according to Fedora, although even the third-year UNC head coach acknowledges that he won’t know how his team bounces back until kick off.

“We’ll find out on Saturday,” Fedora said. “You won’t know until Saturday where your confidence level is. If one game is going to determine who you really are, then that’s not going to be a good situation because you’ve got to play at least 12 of them. You can’t let one game dictate who we are.”

Clemson dual-threat quarterback DeShaun Watson (29-of-41 passing, 479 yards, 4 TD; 47 rushing yards, TD) will pose a legitimate threat to UNC’s defense despite entering the game as the school’s first true freshman to start under center in 20 years.

The Tigers currently rank T-42th in scoring offense (37.0) and 36th in total offense (477.7).

Watson will be protected by a veteran offensive line that includes a trio of fifth-year players and a pair of juniors. UNC quarterback Marquise Williams (53-of-83 passing, 551 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT; 152 rushing yards, 2 TD) has no such luxury.

The Tar Heels will likely be without their two most experienced offensive linemen as right tackle Jon Heck is out, while right guard Landon Turner is listed as doubtful. UNC’s expected starting lineup – three sophomores, a true freshman and a junior - has 23 career starts total.

Those offensive line concerns have played a significant role in keeping assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell’s vertical passing game grounded.

“You’ve seen Marquise get hit a lot of times when he’s let the ball go,” Fedora said, “but he’s done a good job of not hanging onto the ball. We’ve only ended up with two sacks and that’s with a very young offensive line. So he’s doing a good job of getting the ball out of his hands. Unfortunately, there’s been some plays that have been left out there that we needed a half-second more for it to develop, but we didn’t get that opportunity.”

While Fedora spent time throughout the week praising Clemson’s senior-laden defense, including All-America defensive end Vic Beasley, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney lobbed compliments back toward Chapel Hill.

"They're the fastest team we've played as far as their tempo and how fast they want to snap the football," Swinney said. "Obviously, we're a tempo team as well, but they're kind of a notch above us."

The statistics paint a different picture, however, as the Tigers have run more than six plays per game more than the Tar Heels have since Fedora took over in 2012.

There is also wide familiarity between these coaching staffs and rosters. Koenning coached alongside Swinney under Tommy Bowden before ultimately being let go by the current Clemson head coach during the transition period following the 2008 season. UNC linebackers coach Ron West played at Clemson and later coached at his alma mater for 10 years, while Clemson assistant coaches Dan Brooks and Danny Pearman have previously coached at UNC.

Although Fedora and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables have never coached together, they squared off from 2005-07 in the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry. Venables’ Sooners defense held Fedora’s Cowboys offense to 17.3 points per game in three contests.

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