Series Record: The series is tied at 9-9.
Last Five Games: Miami leads, 4-1.
Getting to Know the Hurricanes
Miami (6-3, 3-2 ACC) comes to Chapel Hill with the most momentum its had all season, reeling off two straight wins under interim head coach Larry Scott after the firing of Al Golden. Miami also remains in the hunt for the ACC Coastal Division title despite losses to No. 1 Clemson and No. 16 Florida State. A win on Saturday would move the Hurricanes within one game of the division-leading Tar Heels while owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Miami stole a 30-27 win in Durham on Halloween on a last-second kickoff return touchdown that was riddled in controversy. The Hurricanes then survived a Virginia rally last Saturday with a 27-21 victory. The Canes haven’t been winning impressively, but they’ve been winning, which is progress following the program’s worst loss in school history against Clemson (58-0).
The Tar Heels have struggled with the Hurricanes recently, and their last two losses to Miami were especially painful. In 2013, UNC let a fourth-quarter lead slip away in a 27-23 loss on Zero Dark Thursday. Last season, the Hurricanes rolled in a 47-20 victory.
That’s the name that the Tar Heels will likely hear the most this week, and for good reason. Miami’s sophomore starting quarterback (160-of-255; 62.7 percent) is the ACC’s leading passer, averaging 267.1 yards per game. He missed the Duke game due to a concussion, and came back against Virginia, but this will likely be his first game back at 100 percent since his injury. Kaaya does a great job of protecting the ball and finding the end zone; he’s thrown 12 touchdowns against three interceptions on the season. Kaaya has yet to throw a pick on the road this season.
Kaaya’s favorite target is senior wide receiver Rashawn Scott, who leads the team in receptions (39), receiving yards (539) and touchdowns (4). Scott also suffered an injury against Clemson, knocking him out of that particular game, but returned to action against Duke and Virginia, although his production hasn’t been the same. Scott hasn’t found the end zone since the Hurricanes’ win over Virginia Tech on Oct. 17, and he’s averaging less than 40 yards per game since returning from injury.
Sophomore Joseph Yearby and freshman Mark Walton head up Miami’s running back committee. Yearby gets the most touches between the two and is outgaining Walton by nearly 400 yards, but Walton has one more touchdown than Yearby this season. Miami’s rushing game is the 13th in the ACC this season, averaging just 126 yards per game on the ground. That stat reveals a lot about Miami’s offensive line, which is solid at protecting the quarterback, but struggles to provide holes for the Hurricanes to hit. Miami has allowed 13 sacks this season (fourth fewest in the conference), but the Hurricanes have failed to establish any form of a respectable running game.
Junior linebacker Jermaine Grace anchors the Miami defense. Grace leads the Hurricanes with 61 tackles thus far, including 4.5 for a loss and a sack. He is versatile in his ability to find the ball carrier and the ball itself, as he has also broken up four passes in coverage through nine games.
Miami has a collection of solid defensive backs that will potentially pose problems for UNC quarterback Marquise Williams. Junior corner Artie Burns has five interceptions this season, tied for 8th-most in the entire country. Burns has also broken up two passes this year. Fellow junior defensive back Corn Elder has added an interception and nine break-ups as well.
Miami’s defensive line, like North Carolina’s, has struggled to stop the run this season. The Hurricanes are giving up 192 yards per game on the ground. They’ve fared better at rushing the quarterback, though, racking up 17 sacks.
Despite solid linebackers and a dangerous secondary, Miami’s biggest flaw is simply allowing too many points. The Canes are giving up 26.9 points per game, the third-worst mark in the conference, due in part to a poor red zone defense efficiency (.879, T-95th).
“You really go back and watch film, they do what they do, but they execute their system very well. Therefore, we’re going to have to be up for the challenge of executing. They don’t deviate much from what they do from game to game. There’s a little bit of difference here and there on a route or something like that, but they are what they are. They’re going to play with tempo, they’re going to use their up-tempo style, and they’re going to take shots. They’re a ‘big play’ team - they rely heavily on the big play in their system. You have to be ready to cover, and you have to be able to defend the run, which is something they’ve done better this year than they have before. It’s made them really two-dimensional, especially with a quarterback who can sit in the pocket and make all the throws, but who can also use his feet to create offense – whether it’s designed quarterback runs or sitting in the pocket and throwing the ball down the field. They definitely present an explosive challenge for our team.” – Miami interim head coach Larry Scott on UNC
“They’re aggressive, fast, and like to talk smack. They’ve got a lot of confidence. Knowing me, I probably will (talk back). But that’s just competitive nature. They beat the crap out of us, why wouldn’t they talk? We beat the crap out of somebody, we’ll talk too. They talked a lot, actually.” – North Carolina senior wide receiver Quinshad Davis
Matchup to Watch
Miami QB Brad Kaaya vs. UNC’s secondary
Miami’s offensive key to victory is based in Kaaya’s ability to successfully navigate UNC’s defensive backfield. Despite a defensive line that’s only managed 11 sacks through nine games, starting cornerbacks Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart have been dominant at times in pass defense.
Stewart and Lawrence each have 10 break-ups this season, and Stewart has picked off three passes this season, while Lawrence finally held onto one against Duke. Kaaya represents UNC’s toughest test at quarterback thus far, setting up what should be an intriguing matchup at Kenan Stadium.