Countdown to Kickoff: Miami

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina can take another step up the ACC Coastal Division ladder with a road win over heavily favored Miami at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday (12:30pm/ACCN).

The Hurricanes opened as a 10.5-point favorite on Sunday. That spread quickly jumped to 17.5 before settling at 15.5 on Friday. On the surface, the betting line seems artificially high considering the similar records – Miami is 5-3 (2-2 ACC); UNC 4-4 (2-2 ACC) – and strength of schedules (UNC 19th; Miami 23rd).

There are several factors that fall in the Canes’ favor. Miami is 4-0 at Sun Life Stadium, while UNC is 1-3 on the road. The Hurricanes rank eighth nationally in yards per play (6.97) and ninth in yards per play allowed (4.46), while the Tar Heels rank 64th in yards per play (5.72) and 108th in yards per play allowed (6.35).

Miami is also averaging more offensive points per play (0.51) than UNC (0.48).

There’s also the fact that Miami has done a better job historically in limiting Larry Fedora’s scoreboard assault than almost anyone else in multiple matchups. The Hurricanes limited UNC’s most prolific offense in school history to 18 points in 2012 before holding the Tar Heels to 23 points last season.

That 20.5-point scoring average is topped only by – and strangely by - Louisiana Tech. Fedora’s Southern Miss squad averaged just 16 points per game against the Bulldogs in a pair of meetings in 2010-11.

Last season’s Zero Dark Thursday loss to Miami (27-23) conjures memories of a pivotal 3rd-and-1 gaffe in the final minutes for the Tar Heel fan base, although it was settling for one touchdown in five red zone trips that sealed UNC’s fate despite leading by 10 points in the fourth quarter.

The Tar Heels, led by junior quarterback Marquise Williams, have thrived in the red zone this season, converting 76.5 percent of their trips into touchdowns (5th nationally). Miami is allowing touchdowns on 63 percent of its opponents’ red zone trips, good for 78th nationally.

“This is an excellent offense led by an experienced quarterback that's dynamic,” Miami head coach Al Golden said. “They're healthy on the offensive line; veteran group there. Veteran tight end, veteran receivers that are experienced and have played [and] also at running back. It's going to be a great challenge for our defense.”

UNC’s lack of consistency on the offensive end, however, has led to a feast-or-famine dynamic. In its come-from-behind win over Virginia last week, UNC scored on three 50-plus yard plays, but failed to gain at least 25 yards in half of its possessions.

“We didn’t get any tempo going last week because we didn’t move the chains and we didn’t have any consistency,” Fedora said.

Miami will counter with a heavy workload for junior tailback Duke Johnson, who ranks second in the ACC in rushing with 129.5 yards per game at a 7.45 –yards-per-carry clip. After a slow start to the season, Johnson is averaging 166.5 yards per game over his last four outings.

“He's playing with a chip on his shoulder,” Golden said. “He's trusting his reads more. He's pressing the line of scrimmage more. He's hitting holes really fast and downhill. He's not bouncing it as much. Then when he gets to the second level, he's making good decisions, protecting the ball and using his stiff arm.”

Freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya is another player who has elevated his game in recent weeks, completing 61 percent of his passes with an 8-2 touchdown-interception ratio over Miami’s last four games.

Injuries up front for the Hurricanes, however, may provide an opening for UNC’s embattled defense to make enough critical stops to give its offense a chance. The Tar Heel defense has shown potential in recent weeks, setting up 21 points off turnovers for the offense at Notre Dame before holding Virginia to 130 yards after halftime last week.

UNC currently controls its destiny in the Coastal Division and a win over Miami would give the Tar Heels its third-straight win over a division opponent.

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