CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina visits No. 16 Miami on Saturday in a divisional matchup that could potentially eliminate the losing team from the ACC Coastal race.
Despite a history of competitive contests between these two programs, the last two meetings have been anything but. Miami (4-1, 1-1 ACC) built a 44-6 lead midway through the third quarter the last time these teams met in Miami Gardens, Fla. in 2014, and UNC (4-2, 2-1 ACC) returned the favor last season in taking a 45-0 lead midway through the third quarter in Chapel Hill.
The Hurricanes are a seven-point favorite this time around as both teams look to bounce back from losses a week ago. Miami lost to Florida State, 20-19, after the Seminoles blocked an extra point with 1:38 to play. UNC suffered its worst home loss in eight years with a 34-3 defeat at the hands of Coastal Division leader Virginia Tech.
A second division loss in as many weeks would drop either team in the standings with a tough road ahead for a chance to play for the ACC Championship in Orlando. That dynamic has led many to label Saturday’s game a must-win despite the fact that October is still two weeks young.
“I go into every game thinking it’s a must-win, honestly,” UNC junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said.
While Trubisky and his Miami counterpart, Brad Kaaya, have drawn headlines this week after struggling in their teams’ recent losses, the more telling offensive component may reside in the ground game. UNC is averaging 74.7 rushing yards per game and 2.7 rushing yards per carry in ACC play, while Miami has been slightly better with 88.0 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.
UNC running back Elijah Hood (338 yards, 4 TD) is expected to play after missing the Virginia Tech game with an undisclosed injury. That’s a critical addition for a Tar Heel offense preparing for a Miami defense that leads the ACC and ranks eighth nationally in rushing yards allowed per carry (2.84).
The Hurricanes have also been effective in putting pressure on the opposing quarterback as they lead the ACC in sacks per game (3.6). UNC has struggled at times in that regard, allowing three sacks per game in league play.
“They're very deep up front in their defensive line,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “They're young at linebacker but talented, and [defensive coordinator Manny Diaz] does a mixture of things with his defense that can create some issues for a football team, and so I think he's got them playing really well. They believe in what they're doing. They've bought into it, and he's set a new standard for them.”
Despite ranking 113th nationally in rushing defense (228.8 ypg), UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has seen improvement in his front in recent weeks. The Tar Heels are allowing 4.2 yards per carry in ACC play. A simplified scheme has helped limit missed assignments and improve gap integrity.
“A lot of the time we have a primary gap and a secondary gap,” junior defensive tackle Naz Jones said. “For me, as a 3-technique, my primary gap is the B gap, but I can go into the A sometimes. I think that confuses a lot of guys on the second and third level, so that helped us out by staying in our primary gap, them taking their gap and us being gapped out as a sound defense.”
UNC’s offense, coming off its worst performance of the Fedora era, is intent on proving last week’s showing amidst Hurricane Matthew was a fluke and not the start of a downward trajectory. The Tar Heels plan to push tempo to counter Miami’s exotic defensive looks.
"Their tempo will be as fast as anything we have seen this year,” Diaz said. “They are a team that executes at a very high level.”
UNC’s 10-game ACC winning streak came to end last weekend. The Tar Heels hope to avoid a losing streak by claiming their third win in five trips to South Florida.