This will mark the fourth-ever meeting between the two schools, with Carolina holding a 2-1 advantage in the series that began in 1988. The eighth-ranked Tar Heels defeated the Cardinals 28-10 in 1996, the last time they played. In that game, UNC's second-ranked defense held Louisville to an amazing one yard rushing.
A year earlier, the Tar Heels held Louisville to 159 yards of total offense in a 17-10 win in a Thursday night game televised nationally by ESPN.
It would take a miracle of biblical proportions if the current edition Tar Heels' defense could even come close to duplicating those numbers against the 2004 Cardinals' high-powered offense. However after holding Georgia Tech to six points in the first quarter last week when the Yellow Jackets looked poised to take a commanding lead, and then showing marked improvement as the game continued; Carolina has reason to believe rock bottom is in its rearview mirror.
And while many pointed to UNC's improved defense as key to the 34-13 win over the Yellow Jackets, the fact the Tar Heels forced five turnovers may have been most important to the game's outcome.
"We made a slight improvement in our defense, and I'm just going to say slight," UNC coach John Bunting said. "What we did do was come up with some big plays on defense. There are things we've got to continue to get fixed and they present a continuous challenge to us."
While the Carolina defense surrendered an unenviable 393 yards against Tech, nine of Tech's 11 drives after the first quarter ended in four punts, three interceptions, a fumble, and a turnover on downs.
For the first time since Carolina's 16-10 Peach Bowl Championship win over Auburn in 2001, the Tar Heels surrendered just one touchdown.
Sophomore linebacker Fred Sparkman leads the ACC with 10.7 tackles per game.
"There are a lot of new players and they've made a lot of mistakes in their first couple of games but last week they came up with five turnovers and made plays to win the game," Louisville coach Bob Petrino said of UNC's performance against the Yellow Jackets. "We'll certainly have to go in and execute and be able to move the ball to score points. I think it would be good for us to get ahead early and try to control the ball and put the pressure on them to throw the ball."
The match-up has all the earmarks of a shootout, as both teams possess potent offensive arsenals. The Cardinals, ranked ninth in the country in total offense, are averaging 505.5 yards per game to the Tar Heels' 478.3 – 12th best nationally. However, while Louisville has romped over Kentucky and Army, UNC has faced No. 15 Virginia – it's only blemish of the season.
The Tar Heels are averaging 7.2 yards per play, including 6.0 yards per rush and 15.7 yards per pass. In addition, they're 19 of 37 on third down conversions (51.4-percent) – well up from last year's 36.8 percent.
"They have a lot of weapons on offense and a good offensive line, so it's going to be something where we will really find out and learn some stuff about where exactly we are on defense," Petrino said.
At full strength, both teams employ an effective three-tailback rotation. But the Tar Heels will likely be without the services of sophomore Ronnie McGill, who sprained his left ankle against Tech and was walking on crutches earlier in the week. If McGill can't go, then UNC will rely heavily on seniors Jacque Lewis and Chad Scott, while fans could get their first look at true freshman Vince Wilson.
"I'm ready to do whatever I need to do to help my team win," said Lewis, who rushed for a career-high 164 yards and two touchdowns versus the Yellow Jackets. "I can run just as hard as Ronnie can, and if I have to get five or six tough yards, then that's what I'll do."
Carolina is ranked 12th in the nation averaging 253.3 yard rushing per game.
In addition to the similar ground attacks, UNC and Louisville each have senior quarterbacks that don't necessarily fit the mold of the prototype NFL signal-caller. And while Darian Durant has started most of his collegiate career and will leave with a truckload of school records, Stefan LeFors, who is starting in just his 16th game, has already led Louisville to 11 wins.
"We're playing a quarterback this week who is very similar to Darian," Bunting said. "He's six-foot tall, but he makes a lot of plays."