UNC (6-6) is a three-point favorite over the Scarlet Knights (7-5), although predictability has not been a trait of the Tar Heels in 2014.
UNC has delivered dramatic defensive stops and game-winning drives in the final minutes of four victories, routed a top-25 team in Duke, competed with Notre Dame on national television and looked unprepared in embarrassing losses to instate rivals East Carolina and N.C. State.
The 35-7 loss to the Wolfpack in the regular season finale prevented an optimistic close to an otherwise challenging year, one in which the Tar Heels were ranked in August and September.
Sophomore wide receiver Ryan Switzer told reporters earlier this month that UNC had underachieved in 2014 despite his team posting a respectable 4-1 record in games decided by seven points or less.
“They’re really talented, but they can go from having a bad game to putting up 50 points on people. It’s crazy,” Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said. “They’re either hot or they’re cold. I think one thing with them is you have to jump on them early. You can’t let them run away with a lead.”
Hamilton has clearly done his homework. UNC’s defense, arguably the worst of any Power 5 conference school, has given 38.9 points and 495.7 yards per game. Yet when the defense has started fast as it did in forcing turnovers early against Notre Dame and Duke, it can be effective.
All too often, however, the Tar Heel defense was down for the count not long after the opening kickoff.
“I think in a lot of the games we had, if they scored early in the first drive, guys would just kind of get shell shocked and be a different player for the rest of the game,” middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “I can look at two games, for instance – ECU and Clemson – where they scored on the first three plays of the game and then we weren’t the same team the rest of the game.”
The disastrous results led to the departure of associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning earlier this month. Defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach Dan Disch will call the plays in the bowl game.
“We’ve tweaked some things,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said of his defensive adjustments for Rutgers. “We added a few things, taken some things out, trying to take advantage of the personnel that we’re going to have on the field. There’ll be, probably, a little bit of difference. Maybe the normal person won’t recognize it. But there will be some difference.”
Rutgers’ offense is by no means an offensive juggernaut – The Scarlet Knights rank 81st in total offense (378.8) and 86th in scoring offense (25.6) – but offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen has plenty of good memories in dissecting a woeful UNC defense from his days as Maryland’s head coach. The Terrapins rolled up 588 and 612 yards in 2002-03 against the Tar Heels under Friedgen’s direction.
Meanwhile, UNC’s offense is trying to reestablish its rhythm after a rough close to an inconsistent season. The Tar Heels’ 3.69 yards per play in a 47-20 loss to Miami on Nov. 1 marked the lowest yards-per-play average in Fedora’s seven seasons as head coach. That new low lasted all of four weeks as N.C. State held UNC to 207 yards on 63 plays, good for 3.29 yards per play.
UNC still finished the season ranked 49th in total offense (425.7 ypg) and 43rd in scoring offense (32.7 ppg) despite those poor November showings.
Quarterback Marquise Williams (3,607 total yards, 32 TD, 9 INT), center Lucas Crowley and Switzer (703 receiving yards, 4 TD) were all knocked out of the N.C. State, but have since returned to practice and are expected to play in the bowl game. The Tar Heels will also likely have the services of freshman running Elijah Hood (197 yards, 4 TD), who missed the last six games with a knee injury.
Rutgers’ defense, on the other hand, will encounter one of its toughest tests of the season. The Scarlet Knights rank 90th nationally in scoring defense (30.9 ppg) and 96th in total defense (439.5 ypg).
“That’s a typical Big Ten team that I’ve had experience playing against in that league the last few years,” UNC assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell said. “They’re going to be big, physical and strong.”
A win keeps UNC’s streak of winning seasons intact dating back to 2008, while a loss would give Fedora his first losing season as a head coach. Most importantly, however, is the ability to end 2014 on a better note than UNC ended November.
“We want to get the bad taste out of our mouth,” UNC junior guard Landon Turner said. “Win or lose, we just know we can play better as team. That’s really what it’s about.”
Countdown to Kickoff: Rutgers
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