CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina closes out its nonconference slate against FCS opponent Delaware (12:30pm/RSN) on Saturday.
A win will move the Tar Heels to 3-1 for the first time since 2011 and for only the fourth time since 2000.
Despite its season-opening loss to South Carolina, UNC has shown improvement on both sides of the ball in 2015. The Tar Heels are averaging 6.94 yards per play, up from 5.34 yards per play through three games in 2014, while holding opponents to 4.85 yards per play, down from 6.71 yards per play over the same span last season.
Defensively, UNC currently ranks seventh nationally in red zone defense under first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. The Tar Heels ranked 109th in that category in 2014.
“Our guys are feeling much more comfortable in the techniques that they're having to play and this style of defense, and therefore they're gaining confidence in it,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “Every time they make a play in it and they realize and recognize that what they've been taught will work, it just makes us a better team. I definitely think we're better than we were when we started.”
Delaware (1-2) relies on its ground game to offset a struggling passing attack. The Blue Hens rank 26th nationally (FCS) in rushing offense, churning out 208.3 yards per game. Starting tailback Jalen Randolph (150 yards, 2 TD) will miss Saturday’s game due to injury.
“They're going to the philosophy of being in 12 personnel and bring the ball downhill and run the football at you and make you stop the run,” Fedora said. “They're definitely going to do that, so they're going to challenge us up front, and just being physical on every snap.”
UNC held its first FCS opponent, N.C. A&T, scoreless until garbage time after building a 36-0 halftime lead and pushing that margin to 53-0 in the third quarter. The Aggies are likely the tougher matchup of the two FCS opponents on UNC’s schedule as the Blue Hens arrive at Kenan Stadium with a young roster that starts 13 underclassmen.
“I think the players love to play this game,” said Delaware head coach Dave Brock, who coached at UNC in 2005-06. “I think it gives you the opportunity to play up. I don’t know that there’s a lot of benefit to this particular game this year with the makeup of our roster. But that’s not here nor there. The game’s the game. And it’s the next game on the schedule.
“I think the guys are going to be fired up. It’s one of the most beautiful places you can play in the country. It’s a spectacular place.”
FCS teams are 5-80 against FBS opponents in 2015. The Blue Hens last played a FBS opponent in their 2014 season opener, losing to ACC Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh, 62-0.
Delaware is receiving a $400,000 check for Saturday’s game, according to The News Journal.
The potential for bad weather – forecasts are calling for a 60 percent chance of rain at kickoff – may not only affect play calling, but it may also affect attendance, which is a topic junior wide receiver Bug Howard brought to the forefront this week with a tweet that has been retweeted nearly 500 times. https://twitter.com/ThaBugMan/status/646329240292622336
In the eight years between John Bunting’s swan song in 2006 and 2015, UNC played 53 home games and only seven of those were played in front of crowds of less than 50,000 fans. That’s happened twice already in 2015.
An announced attendance of 44,000 was on hand for UNC’s season opener against N.C. A&T earlier this month before 41,000 showed up for last weekend’s 48-14 rout of Illinois.
Regardless of the reasons behind the drop in attendance – NCAA fatigue, a 6-7 record in 2014, parking and tailgating challenges, to name a few – the primary solution is excelling on game day, according to Marquise Williams.
“We've just got to win,” the fifth-year senior quarterback said. “We have to win. If we don't win, nobody's going to show up. Nobody's going to get out of bed early. I'd rest, too, if we were losing. We've got to win games to bring them in.”
A win on Saturday would improve UNC’s home record under Fedora to 17-6.