TV: JP Sports – Steve Martin (play-by-play), Doc Walker (analyst), Mike Hogewood (sideline)
Site: Memorial Stadium (81,473 grass)
Records: Clemson (4-3, 2-2 ACC); UNC (1-6, 0-3 ACC)
Series: Clemson leads 32-18-1
Rankings: Neither team is ranked
Coaches: Clemson – Tommy Bowden 5th season, 33-23-0 .589; UNC – John Bunting, 3rd season, 12-20-0 .375
Last Meeting: Clemson 42, UNC 12 on Nov. 9, 2002, Chapel Hill.
Line: Clemson by 13
OVERVIEW Say what you want about the hapless Tar Heels; they are playing their best football of the season right now. But the improving Carolina defense is still the worst in Division I, which only punctuates just how far it has fallen.
The offense can be explosive at times, and the special teams play can be described as solid. As is seemingly the case each week, a shootout is expected. And with such games, anything can happen. The Tar Heels begin a stretch where they will play three of their next four games on the road, where their only four wins since the beginning of the 2002 season have taken place.
Tar Heel fans hope that Darian Durant's final visit to the Palmetto State will be as pleasant as the last one. In a platoon role with Ronald Curry two years ago at Death Valley, he completed all 11 of his passing attempts, threw for one touchdown and rushed for two more to lead UNC to a 38-3 thrashing of the Tigers.
Durant continues to lead Carolina in rushing and passing this season, the first Tar Heel to do so since Gayle Bomar in 1968. Durant has accounted for 13 of UNC's 21 offensive touchdowns this season. He has thrown 130 passes without an interception.
Look for a fast start, as the Tar Heels have jumped out to a lead of nine points or better in each of the last three meetings between the two teams.
Durant and Charlie Whitehurst were both recruited by Mike O'Cain, and that is where the similarities end. Durant is the savvy and elusive general that is always a threat to turn a sure sack into a big ground gainer. But while Durant's arm is above average at best, Whitehurst may have the best gun in the conference. He has completed at least 22 passes in six straight games. Respectively, Whitehurst and Durant are ranked third and fourth in the league in passing efficiency.
After rushing for just under 100 yards per game in the first five games, Carolina has rushed for an average of 176.2 yards in the last two. Perhaps the reason for the improvement has been the implementation of two tailbacks in at the same time. Ronnie McGill has led the team in rushing over that span. Clemson's Yusef Kelly is listed as doubtful. But even with Kelly out, look for Duane Coleman and Chad Jasmin to run roughshod over the Tar Heels' weak defensive line.
The talent on both teams goes way beyond the two-deep. Jarwarski Pollock and Mike Mason head up a wealth of possession receivers and one's with big strike capability, while the Tigers' tandem of Derek Hamilton and Kevin Youngblood are both ranked in the ACC's Top 10 statistically. Airese Carey, a NCAA champion sprinter, is reportedly back to full speed.
Though the Tar Heels' offensive front is providing much better run-blocking and pass protection these days, as evidenced by the effective offensive attacks over the past two games, two three-and-outs down the stretch last week stand out. This is a veteran unit, and at some point, continuously talking about improvement becomes a negative attribute. It's absolutely essential that Carolina keep its defense off the field as much as possible against the Tigers, and that all begins up front. Clemson found success in the second half versus N.C. State last week with some newfound youth in Roman and Dustin Fry. That depth will afford them the ability to pound on Carolina's suspect defensive front.
This horse has been beaten to death, but will not be put out of its misery until the UNC defensive line can resist being whipped repeatedly by opposing offensive linemen. Clemson features linebacker Leroy Hill, who leads the nation with 2.57 tackles for loss per game. Ends' Maurice Fountain and Vontrell Jamison have stepped up and filled in nicely for two injured veterans, and 6-foot-6, 330-pound Donnell Washington is a pass rushing menace.
Lionell Green and Mahlon Carey have picked up the effort in defensive backfield, but this is a unit that still has a great deal of ground to make up as well. The Tar Heels were beat by the deep ball for a touchdown on Arizona State's first series last week and beaten by the short corner fade rout for a touchdown on the game's final play. A crossing pattern that went for 42 yards set up the winning score. Led by Jamaal Fudge and Travis Pugh, the Tigers are giving up just 200 yards of passing offense per game.
Except for a lapse on punt coverage in the waning seconds of the loss to the Sun Devils, special teams has been a plus for the Tar Heels of late. Mason is factoring in on nearly every Carolina punt and return. The Heels have a better field goal kicker in Dan Orner, while the Tigers have one of the league's best punters in Cole Chason. Justin Miller is the third-best kickoff returner in the ACC, and could be a threat provided Topher Roberts allows him out of his own end zone.
Prediction: Clemson 45, UNC 31