Series Record: UNC leads, 10-9
Last Five Games: Miami leads, 3-2
Getting to know Miami
UNC travels to Miami (4-1, 1-1 ACC) this weekend to face a Hurricanes team that is still reeling from their first loss of the season. Miami fell to Florida State after missing an extra point to tie the game with under two minutes remaining.
The loss, the first under new head coach Mark Richt, doesn’t take away from the impressive start the Hurricanes have had to their 2016 campaign. Richt has revitalized the program and brought it back to national relevance. The Hurricanes are ranked 10th in the country in total defense and are in the top-50 in total offense, both significant improvements over last season.
In just five short games, Richt has drastically improved the Hurricanes’ offensive production. Miami is scoring an average of 41.4 points per game this season, which ranks 16th in the country. That is up substantially form last year, when Miami averaged 27.8 points per game.
The biggest benefactor from Richt’s short tenure has been sophomore running back Mark Walton. In five games, Walton has rushed for 484 yards, already surpassing his rushing yards total from all of 2015. He’s had no trouble finding the end zone, as he is second in the ACC with eight rushing touchdowns.
What’s most impressive about Walton is his initial bounce when he gets the ball. At 5-foot-9, he relies on his agility to get past defenders, and it’s on display when he gets to the edge. Walton is able to get low within the first five yards and bounce off several tackles in open space. If he gets free, then it’s difficult for opposing defenses to stop him. He’s broken out for big runs all season and can burn the Tar Heels if they don’t wrap up.
Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya is finally coming into his prime after years of lofty expectations. Kaaya is confident and comfortable in the pocket, completing 65 percent of his passes for 1,149 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
If Richt has drastically improved Miami’s offense, then the defensive improvements the Canes have seen this season are all thanks to new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. The Hurricanes’ defense, which gave up 28.2 points per game last season, is only allowing 12.8 points per game in 2016 – fifth best in the nation.
The biggest improvement from Diaz has been his defense’s ability to get to the quarterback. Miami is ranked eighth in the nation with 18 total team sacks. It’s hard to find a starter on the Hurricanes’ front seven who hasn’t had success getting to the passer – five Miami defenders have already accumulated over two sacks each this season.
The best new addition to the Canes defense has been freshman linebacker Michael Pinckney. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker has burst onto the scene as he is tied for the team lead in tackles with 20. Adding to that, he has four tackles for loss and an interception in five starts. If Walton is the Canes’ most explosive offensive player, then Pinckney is becoming that on the defensive side of the ball. Another first-year stud has been linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, who is bigger than Pinckney and is the more intimidating physical specimen of the two youngsters.
Miami’s secondary, much like UNC’s, is led by two veteran defensive backs. Seniors Corn Elder and Rayshawn Jenkins have helped maintain focus for a fairly young defensive group. Both have an interception on the year and are responsible for keeping the Canes defense in synch.
“He threw a lot better than I thought he’d throw. I wouldn’t have known that his arm was bothering him – and I don’t know if it was, I didn’t even ask him. I was just watching him throw it and he zipped the ball well. So I didn’t really think there was an issue. He practiced the whole day. He did a good job.” – Richt on Kaaya, who sustained a shoulder injury in the loss to FSU
The coverage does dictate where the ball goes a lot. Even sometimes it depends on what personnel group we’re in, whether he’s the primary guy or not on a certain route. It’s about spreading it. Let’s think about it – Stacy [Coley] is pretty good. [Braxton] Berrios is pretty good. Ahmmon [Richards] is pretty good. Those tight ends are pretty good. Those backs are pretty good. They’re all talented, so you want to spread it out and not give the defense the feeling that we have to stop this one guy and we’ll win the game. That’s the way you want to play offensive football, if you can.” – Richt on the design of his passing game
Matchup to Watch
UNC’s offensive line vs. Miami’s front seven
In UNC’s blowout loss to Virginia Tech last week, the Tar Heel offensive line struggled mightily. The Hokies broke past initial blocks to record ten tackles for loss and were able to sack quarterback Mitch Trubisky twice. Whenever UNC’s rushers were able to get out of the backfield, it still didn’t lead to much, as UNC averaged 2.5 yards per rush in hurricane conditions. UNC’s line, which played without senior left guard Caleb Peterson, will need to return to form to limit the Hurricanes’ penetration. Miami leads the NCAA in average tackles for loss per game with 10.8. Saturday’s test will be the toughest of the season for UNC’s OL.