Miami enters its ACC opener against North Carolina on Saturday with a 2-1 overall record. This program has never been short on talent, but the Hurricanes have struggled in recent years in getting production on the football field from that ability, including in head coach Randy Shannon's first season in 2007 as his program posted a 5-7 record.
But the Hurricanes have had better effort and efficiency in its first three ball contests of 2008, routing Charleston Southern (52-7) and Texas A&M (41-23) while putting up a better-than-expected fight against Florida in a 26-3 loss three weeks ago. With only 11 starters returning this fall, Shannon played 21 true freshmen in the season-opener. His defense has been stout thus far, allowing its opponents just 6.3 points and 109 yards in the first half this season.
"They've got just a great group of wide receivers that have explosive big play capabilities and their running backs are homerun hitters." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"We feel like we're getting on the right track. We're doing all the right things. We just have to stay healthy and keep getting better. I told these guys last night that we can't go back this week and ... slack off. We cannot say, 'Oh, well, we'll fix the problems.' We've got to hype on the little things. Keep working to get open, keep fighting all the time." – Miami head coach Randy Shannon
"It's never good news, whether it's high school, college or pro, when you hear that your starting quarterback is going to be out for a couple of weeks." – UNC senior linebacker Mark Paschal
It was never really a question of if Robert Marve would get an opportunity to play quarterback at the BCS-level of college football. It was more of a question of when. The red-shirt freshman enrolled at Miami as the state of Florida's 2006 edition of Mr. Football, breaking Tim Tebow's records for passing yards (4,380) and touchdowns (48).
Now, with the youth movement fully underway in Coral Gables, Marve will start his third consecutive game under center for the Hurricanes. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder earned Rookie of the Week honors last week for completing 16-of-22 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns in Miami's victory over Texas A&M, which included his first career touchdown on a 26-yarder to Thearon Collier.
Marve also completed 10-of-18 passes for 69 yards in his first start at Florida three weeks ago.
He has shared snaps at quarterback with true freshman Jacory Harris, who started the season opener against Charleston Southern. Despite Marve's inexperience, Shannon has been pleased with his quarterback's ball protection, with only one interception for the year.
"He's not having turnovers," Shannon said. "Last year every eight throws we were making in a game we'd have an interception. We have 24 throws, we'd have three interceptions in a game. That was just the norm. This year Marve and Jacory [Harris] are doing great at just dispersing the ball; if nothing's there throwing it out of bounds. And they're using underneath guys, which is good. They're not always trying to take home run shots, but when they're open they take shots."
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Quarterbacks vs. Miami's Defense
Offensive execution against Miami's defense was going to be difficult even with T.J. Yates running the show for North Carolina. But with the red-shirt sophomore sidelined for six weeks with a fractured left ankle, back-ups Mike Paulus and Cam Sexton will have their work cut out for them on Saturday.
As of Monday afternoon, Davis had not named a starter between Paulus, a red-shirt freshman that completed 3-of-8 passes for 23 yards and two interceptions last weekend, and Sexton, a red-shirt junior that started five games in 2006, completing 57 of his 136 career attempts for 840 yards, four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
New defensive coordinator Bill Young has the Hurricanes defense operating on all cylinders, ranking in the top-35 nationally in total defense (26th – 277.7 yards per game), rushing defense (17th – 75 ypg), tackles for loss (14th – 8.0 per game) and sacks (T-33rd – 2.33 per game).
"Their defense has just been outstanding," Davis said. "They've had three great games defensively where they have just suffocated the other team."
With North Carolina's ground struggling to produce, look for the Hurricanes to utilize 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long opportunities to place immense pressure upon whichever quarterback is in the game. It doesn't help matters that the Tar Heels' offensive line is giving up 2.33 sacks per outing, good for 94th nationally.
But if Paulus and/or Sexton can keep their cool while facing a variety of blitzes, there is opportunity for success in the passing game. It helps having arguably the top wide receiver corps in the league with Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster going up against a pass defense that ranks 11th in the ACC in efficiency (134.7) and has intercepted just one pass on the season.
UNC's Run Defense vs. Miami's Graig Cooper
Miami's ground game entering this season was the offense's strength with Javarris James and Graig Cooper working together in the backfield. But when James suffered a high ankle sprain against Florida that will sideline him for at least another two weeks, the responsibility immediately shifted to his sophomore counterpart.
Despite the pressure, Cooper responded last weekend against Texas A&M, gaining a career-high 128 yards on just 16 rushing attempts, including 77 yards and two touchdowns on his first three carries.
"Graig Cooper, with the slightest poor angle or the slightest bad arm tackle, can take it to the house and he can score," Davis said on Monday.
North Carolina ranks 8th in the ACC in run defense, allowing 139.7 yards per game. The Tar Heels looked solid defending the run early against Virginia Tech last Saturday, before tiring out as the Hokies ran the ball 10 times for 63 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
With North Carolina not knowing what to expect from a new quarterback under center, it will be imperative for the defense to give itself plenty of rest on the sidelines, and that begins with stopping Cooper early in possessions and forcing Marve to throw the ball in 3rd-and-long situations.
* Miami's roster includes 23 seniors, 13 of whom have already earned degrees, while the remaining 10 are scheduled to graduate either this December or next May.
* North Carolina head coach Butch Davis was head coach for six seasons at the University of Miami and led the Hurricanes to a 51-20 record, three Big East Conference championships and four postseason bowl wins in as many appearances. The Tar Heels defeated Miami last season, 33-27, in Chapel Hill.
* Davis was an assistant coach for the Hurricanes during Shannon's five seasons as a player at Miami from 1984-88. When Davis returned to Coral Gables in 1995, Shannon served as his linebackers coach for three years until 1997.
* Carolina and Miami are meeting for the 12th time overall with the Tar Heels holding a narrow 6-5 advantage in the series. This is the fifth meeting between the two schools since Miami joined the ACC in 2004 and each team has won twice.