Head-to-Head: UNC-Maryland

What are the key battles to watch in Saturday's game against Maryland? Inside Carolina takes a closer look at the five head-to-head matchups that will determine the outcome ...

1. UNC's Defensive Line vs. Maryland's Offensive Line

There's no question that the defensive line has led the resurgent charge for the North Carolina defense (337.6 yards per game ranks 37th nationally). Senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer (43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) has anchored the front four this entire season, while sophomore defensive end E.J. Wilson (26 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks) and freshman defensive tackle Marvin Austin (17 tackles, 3.5 sacks) have quickly developed under defensive line coach John Blake.

A strengthening defensive line is the last thing that the Maryland Terrapins want to encounter on Saturday, as their offensive line is in shambles due to injury. Left tackle Scott Burley may be available against the Heels, which is significant because his back-up Bruce Campbell will not be playing. Starting offensive guard Andrew Crummey and starting tight end Dan Gronkowski will also miss the game this weekend.

"We've lost four offensive linemen [this season]," head coach Ralph Friedgen said. "We thought we had seven going in. That says it all. We're playing with freshmen and walk-on kids, and on the offensive line the maturity factor is very important."

Add to that news the fact that starting quarterback Jordan Steffy (674 yards on 68-of-100 passing, two touchdowns, four interceptions) suffered a concussion in the upset victory over Rutgers, and has missed the last two contests. Back-up Chris Turner (759 yards on 60-of-93 passing, one touchdown, two interceptions) has been adequate as his replacement, but Friedgen has yet to name a starter for Saturday's meeting with North Carolina.

The Tar Heel defensive line has an opportunity to dominate the Terps up front, as even the Maryland players will admit that the offense is struggling.

"You've got starters and experienced guys who know the system and then you've got first year guys just stepping in, still trying to learn some of the stuff so you can definitely tell there's a drop-off," senior running back Keon Lattimore said.

2. UNC's Ground Game vs. Maryland's Run Defense

Offensive coordinator John Shoop has used a variety of creative play calls during the last two ball games to jumpstart North Carolina's stagnant rushing attack (101.9 yards per game ranks 10th in the ACC). Greg Little, Brandon Tate, Joe Dailey and Brooks Foster are just a few of the non-running backs that have seen action through direct snaps, sweeps and reverses.

"We want to try to have as efficient of a running game as possible," Davis said. "Try to get the ball into the hands of guys that can make plays, and some of the guys can make plays in different formations and different personnel groupings.

"I think that every game plan that we've drawn up offensively, we've tried as hard as we can, not only to spread the ball around, but certainly to get as many of these guys involved in the game plan."

That mentality may possibly pay off this Saturday, as Maryland has struggled to control its opponents' ability to move the ball on the ground. The Terps are allowing 165.1 yards per game – good for 10th in the ACC.

Friedgen indicated on Sunday that his defense missed 12 tackles in the second half of last weekend's 30-17 loss to Clemson.

"We didn't tackle anybody, myself included," linebacker Erin Henderson said following the defeat. "We've got to do a better job of tackling… We had opportunities to make plays, we just didn't do it. That's on us. We have to do a better job of tackling."

3. UNC's Coverage Units vs. Maryland's Kick Returners

The plan made perfect sense – Wake Forest's Kenny Moore led the ACC in all-purpose yards heading into last Saturday's contest, and so the Tar Heels were simply going to kick away from the big-play threat. Unfortunately for North Carolina, secondary returner Kevin Marion fielded two kickoffs and gobbled up 181 yards of real estate, including a touchdown.

As a young team that has to fight and scrap to be competitive against strong opponents, those returns were back-breakers that led to the blowout in Winston-Salem.

"You never know week to week exactly where those big plays are potentially going to come from," Davis said. "A couple of weeks earlier, they were coming on punt returns. We worked hard on that to try to alleviate that, and unfortunately last week, for the first time, it was on kickoff returns."

North Carolina's kickoff coverage unit ranks 117th nationally (26.13 yards per return), while the punt coverage team ranks 83rd nationally (10.53 ypr). If a special teams squad ever needed some help, then the Tar Heels would qualify, and that assistance may arrive in Chapel Hill on Saturday in the form of a mediocre Terp return unit.

Junior Danny Oquendo is managing just 8.4 yards on punt returns (ninth in the ACC), while freshman Da'Rel Scott is averaging 19.5 yards per kickoff for the league's worst kickoff return unit.

Those stats aside, Davis emphasized on Tuesday just how important a role special teams play in tightly-contested ball games.

"Special teams is an enormous tempo setter," Davis said. "I think that it kind of sends a message about how your team is going to play, how physical you're going to be, the energy level and then selfishly, from one standpoint as we learned last week, it's the fastest, quickest way to lose ball games."

4. UNC's Run Defense vs. Maryland's Rushing Duo

The Terps possess one of the top running back tandems in the ACC in Lattimore (680 yards, 10 touchdowns) and senior Lance Ball (472 yards, 9 touchdowns). Both players are averaging over four yards per carry, despite running behind a banged-up offensive line.

Davis indicated earlier this week that the Tar Heels have seen a similar ground attack earlier in the season.

"They remind in some respects of Virginia in their ability to run the football," Davis said. "Two big, strong running backs, they really run the ball well. (Keon) Lattimore's got almost 700 yards – I think over 600 yards – and so both of those guys are big, physical."

Friedgen's offensive backfield duo have developed a chemistry over the years, with no hard feelings surfacing about how many carries the other gets during any particular ball game.

"We take a great deal of pride in it," Lattimore said. "We've been doing it for awhile now, ever since we were sophomores and each year just gets better and better. I think it took a lot of wear and tear off the body, everyone wants to be that guy and have the attention but the way it works out everything has been great for Lance and me."

Maryland rushed for over 200 yards in three of their first five ball games, but has recently struggled in contests against Georgia Tech, Virginia and Clemson, gaining a combined 315 yards during that stretch.

There is no doubt that Friedgen will do his best to grind out a victory behind his two workhorses against a North Carolina defense that ranks ninth in the conference against the run (140.9 yards per game). Senior linebacker Durell Mapp (82 tackles, five tackles for loss) and freshman safety Deunta Williams (43 tackles) have been solid in run support, but Wake Forest's Josh Adams and Micah Andrews still managed to combine for 126 yards and 5.04 yards per carry average last Saturday.

5. UNC's Brandon Tate vs. Maryland's Special Teams:

For all the talk concerning the Tar Heels' coverage units, it's understandable that Tate's special teams' abilities have moved to the media's back burner. While the junior wide receiver leads the ACC in all-purpose yards with 156.25 yards per game, he has not been able to not make much noise in the kicking game the last two contests.

Some big returns from UNC's human highlight reel could pay significant dividends in a game between two evenly-matched squads on Saturday.

"A lot of teams think of special teams as a separate entity," Davis said. "I actually look at special teams as an extension of your offense and defense. Defense doesn't start when your defense goes on the field – defense starts when you cover a punt or you cover a kickoff. By the same token, your punt return and kickoff return is actually your first offensive play. Your first offensive play could be a 25-yard punt return, and that's the same as throwing it to Brandon Tate or Hakeem Nicks for 25 yards."

Travis Baltz has handled Maryland's punting duties admirably as a true freshman, averaging 40.9 yards per attempt, with 11 kills inside the 20-yard line. Senior Chris Roberts has been solid as well on kickoffs, using directional kicking to offset his inability to kick the ball into the end zone (only one touchback on the season). That strategy has worked well, as Maryland ranks fourth nationally in kickoff return yardage defense (17.43 yards per return).

With that type of success, Maryland will not shy away from kicking to Tate, which will provide the Burlington, N.C native several opportunities to be a game-changer on Homecoming weekend.

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