"Jim Grobe and his staff have done a great job over there," said North Carolina head coach John Bunting at his Tuesday press conference. "They've lost a couple of tough ballgames, one to Virginia and one to Clemson. They've fought every single game."
The Tar Heels go into this game minus quarterback Darian Durant, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken thumb. Durant was leading the ACC in total offense at the time of his injury. Instead, the Tar Heel offense will be lead by junior C.J. Stephens.
Stephens entered the Virginia game in the fourth quarter after Durant's injury, and Bunting said of his play, "I was really pleased with him. That's my ability to judge what he has done, what he did in that game. What he has done in practice, he's taking a lot of reps, hasn't taken all the reps, but there are days where he is very sharp out there. I'm anticipating hat he'll be ready to play and play well."
North Carolina will face the best rushing offense in the ACC this weekend. The Deacons average nearly 250 yards per game rushing in Grobe's modified option attack, not only the best in the league, but also ranked 10th nationally.
The running game of the Deacons took a hit early in the season when they lost a couple of quality backs to injuries, including senior Tarence Williams (5-10, 178), who earned second team All-ACC honors in 2001 after rushing for over a thousand yards.
Williams has gradually been worked back into the Deacons' lineup, which has employed a running-back-by-committee approach. Despite their success in running the ball, no Deacon back has rushed for over 100 yards this season, though Williams has come close on a couple of occasions (99 yards vs. Georgia Tech, 97 yards vs. Clemson). Williams rushed for 101 yards against the Tar Heels last season, as Wake Forest came from behind to win the game.
Chris Barclay (5-10, 175) is a true freshman from Louisville, Kent. that has made the most of his opportunities created by the Deacon injuries. Barclay is averaging a team-high 53.8 ypg. The Deacons have used four different backs in their rushing attack, but with the return of Williams, he and Barclay should receive the bulk of the snaps on Saturday.
The Wake Forest fullback, senior Ovie Mughelli (6-2, 248), is also a significant part of the rushing attack and has rushed for nine touchdowns this season.
The Demon Deacons are known for their running game, but Grobe indicates that he seeks a balanced offense at Wake, "We're going to try to find ways to throw the football, we're going to try to find ways to run the football, we'll be creative as best we can to balance a little bit. Certainly we're a better running team than a throwing team. Throwing the football got us in a little bit of trouble at Clemson, hopefully, we can take care of the ball a little bit better."
At quarterback, senior James MacPherson (6-2, 197) may not throw the ball as often as the rest of his ACC counterparts, but he rarely makes mistakes and is not the type of quarterback that loses games. MacPherson tossed 159 passes, encompassing 29 quarters of football, without an interception. That streak ended last week at Clemson, and he went on to throw two more interceptions in that game.
MacPherson's favorite target is senior Fabian Davis (5-11, 180), who is second in the ACC in all-purpose yardage at 161.5 ypg. Davis has 30 catches to his credit this season (482 yards, 4 TD's), and catches an average of 3.8 balls per game. Davis is also an exceptional kickoff return man, third in the ACC, averaging 24.3 yards-per-return. The verstatile Davis also returns punts for the Deacons, and averages 8.7 yards per return.
Senior Ray Thomas (6-4, 245), a three-year starter for the Deacs, is mainly used for blocking purposes in the Wake Forest scheme. His best receiving game came against Georgia Tech where he caught two passes for 25 yards.
Along the offensive line, junior Mark Munoz (6-4, 270) is a converted tight end who now plays left tackle and has 13 consecutive starts to his credit. Junior Tyson Clabo (6-6, 307) lines up at left guard, and earned ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week following the Georgia Tech win. Red-shirt freshman Craig Jones (6-1, 280) began the year as the starting center, but now has been replaced by sophomore Blake Lingruen (6-4, 275) and the two split time at that position. Lingruen has started the past five games.
At right guard, senior Masanori Toguchi (6-3, 284) had his first career start this year against Duke and is expected to start this week. Senior right guard Blake Henry (6-6, 301) was named ACC Player of the Week against Purdue, but has been troubled by a back injury. He started last week against Clemson, but is questionable to play this week against the Tar Heels. Senior right tackle Tim Bennett (6-4, 285) rounds out the starters on the offensive line, but has also had injury problems.
Wake Forest has one of the better rushing defenses in the league, yielding only 126.75 ypg, but has perhaps the most vulnerable pass defense the Heels have faced this season, giving up 243.8 ypg. The Deacons employ a 3-3-5 defensive alignment as their base defense. It is a veteran defensive unit, with eight of eleven starters back from 2001.
The Wake Forest defense begins with senior left defensive end Calvin Pace (6-6, 260), who now owns the Deacon career record for tackles for loss, and needs only four more sacks to capture that record. Pace leads the Deacons with 56 tackles this season, 16 of them for a loss, and has six sacks. Pace is one of those defensive linemen that can dominate a game.
At right defensive end is senior Roderick Stephen (6-4, 250), who has 28 tackles this season, and the nose tackle is Montique Sharpe (6-2, 292), who has played with a torn LCL in his knee since the N.C. State game, and has not missed a game.
The middle linebacker position is up in the air this week for the Deacs, as sophomore Brad White (6-1, 216), a Georgia transfer, is questionable this week. White is third on the team in tackles, having registered 39 stops this year, three tackles for loss, and a sack. If White cannot go, junior Dion Williams (6-1, 239) will likely start. Williams started the N.C. State game and lead the Deacs in tackles for that contest.
On the left side at linebacker is sophomore Jamie Scott (6-0, 218), who has also battled injury problems this season. Scott is sixth on the team in tackles, with 38. Scott's back up is junior Jammal Argrow (6-1, 217). Junior Kellen Brantley (6-3, 236) mans the right outside linebacker position.
Red-shirt freshman Caron Bracy (6-0, 213) mans the "bandit" position on the Wake Forest defense, a cross between a safety and a linebacker. Bracy is the team's second leading tackler, with 43 tackles and 33 solo stops. At the free safety spot is junior Quintin Williams (6-2, 195), who is a two-year starter for the Deacs and who has two picks this season. Sophomore Warren Braxton (6-0, 204) mans the strong safety spot, and has four pass break-ups and has recovered two fumbles this season.
Sophomore Eric King (5-9, 183) has had a solid year at cornerback for Wake, picking off three interceptions to lead the Deacs in that category. He is also the team's fifth leading tackler with 37 stops. On the other side at corner is junior Daryl Shaw (5-9, 171), who has two picks this season.
The Wake Forest defense also excels in forcing turnovers, as only FSU has a better turnover ration that do the Deacons this year in the ACC. Wake has recovered 13 fumbles and picked off nine passes this season, while fumbling themselves only four times and being picked off ten times.
What a nightmare match-up for the Tar Heels. North Carolina has the most porous run defense in the league, giving up 212 yards per game on the ground, matched up against the best rushing attack in the ACC, and one of the best in the nation.
To make matters worse, the Tar Heels learned this week that their most experienced defensive lineman, junior Will Chapman (6-4, 272), may be lost for the season due to a fractured wrist, and is definitely out against Wake Forest. Chapman leads the Tar Heels in sacks and tackles for loss.
As for the Tar Heel offense, it does not bode well that UNC is dead last in the ACC in rushing offense, mustering a meager 104.4 yards per game and only 2.96 yards per carry, while Wake Forest has one of the stingier run defenses in the league.
The UNC passing game will be more or less a mystery, since Stephens will be making his first career start at Wake Forest, in place of the injured Durant. Wake Forest will undoubtedly attempt to pressure Stephens at every opportunity. If the Deacs can get to Stephens with some degree of regularity and rattle the first-time starter, it is difficult to see how UNC will be able to make yardage on offense.
Wake Forest is also plus 1.5 in turnover margin, while North Carolina is minus 1.1.
Not attempting to be unduly alarmist, but this game has the potential of being a blow-out win for the Deacons. In order for the Tar Heels to have any chance, they will have to do several things they have not done well, or at all, so far this season. Such as:
- Run the ball effectively. With no UNC running game to speak of, the Demon Deacons will be able to pin their ears back and focus on pressuring a first-time starter at quarterback. First down yardage will be critical. If the Tar Heel running game can only muster one or two yards on first down, it will make things that much easier for the Wake defense.
- Slow down Wake's running game. Notice we did not say "stop," because that is an impossibility for the UNC defense. Wake will get some yardage on the ground, but the Heels can't let the Deacons sustain multiple-play drives doing nothing but running the ball, or the game will be over before it starts.
- Protect C.J. Stephens. The offense will have to have its best game of the year picking up blitzes. Stephens is not as elusive as Durant, and is not as much of a threat to throw on the run as Durant.
- Play-calling. "In Tranq we trust," but he will have to change up the playbook considerably for Stephens. Delays, draws, screens – all the usual means of slowing up a pass rush -- will have to be employed by offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill to prevent Stephens from going under a mass of Deacon pass-rushers. The UNC offense might be better off attempting to throw on first down, at least for this contest.
- Efficiency on offense. North Carolina cannot afford costly pre-snap penalties. This has been a sore point all season, and has to get fixed this week for the Heels to have a chance.
- Turnovers. North Carolina cannot lose the turnover battle and win this game. That is a football cliché, but was never truer than in this contest. Getting and keeping possession of the football will be at a premium for the Tar Heels come Saturday.
- C.J. Stephens. Stephens will have to avoid trying to do everything himself. It will be critical that he take what the Wake defense gives him, and not try to hit a home run every time he comes up to the plate. He has to recognize the blitz, get rid of the ball quickly, and let his backs, tight ends, and wide receivers make plays.
- Be lucky.