Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. WVU

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – North Carolina returns to the postseason for the first time since 2004 on Saturday. Not only have the Tar Heels reversed last fall's 4-8 record with an 8-4 mark in 2008, but they are also looking to post the program's first nine-win season since 1997.

Butch Davis' second season in Chapel Hill was undoubtedly a success that few observers expected so early in his tenure. Against the nation's 10th-toughest schedule, according to USA Today's Jeff Sagarin, North Carolina knocked off three top-25 squads and defeated six teams that would eventually end up in a postseason bowl game.

"There's certainly been some growth just from the standpoint of getting here," Davis told reporters at a media gathering at Fuel Pizza in downtown Charlotte on Friday. "Any time you play good teams, when you get challenged – whether you win or you don't win – you find out about your program [and the] areas that you need to address."

Turnovers have told the story for the Tar Heels in 2008, posting a plus-16 margin in their eight victories and a negative-12 ratio in their four losses.

Those statistics will be important once again at the Meineke Car Care Bowl this weekend, as West Virginia (8-4) boasts the BIG EAST's best turnover per game average (+1.00, good for 12th nationally). Add that to a stout scoring defense (15.9 points per game ranks ninth nationally) and an opportunistic passing defense (102.12 rating ranks 14th nationally), thanks to the top red zone defense in the country (allowing points just 64 percent of the time), and T.J. Yates (66-of-110 passing for 957 yards, nine TD and three INT) and the Tar Heel offense will encounter arguably their toughest test of the season.

"They can easily just drop eight guys into pass rush, and they can also blitz seven guys or eight guys," Yates said. "Just trying to recognize that as much as possible is going to help us be able to take advantage of some of the things that they do. But if they're in the red zone, they're dropping eight guys pretty much all across the goal line, so that's one of the things that we haven't seen all season."

North Carolina has done well in its own right in capitalizing on its red zone opportunities this season, scoring points on 34 of its 40 trips inside the 20-yard line, thanks in part to the ACC's top passing efficiency ranking (135.1), standout wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (1,005 yards and nine TDs) and the ability to move the ball on the ground (15 rushing touchdowns in the red zone).

Running backs Shaun Draughn (801 yards and three TD on 4.4 yards per carry) and Ryan Houston (295 yards, eight TD) have emerged as one of the ACC's top tandems in the backfield, providing balance to an offense lacking in that area in 2007. Their ability to churn out yards and milk the clock to keep West Virginia's potent offense off the field will be worth watching on Saturday, as quarterback Pat White and running back Noel Devine combine for 86.5 percent of the Mountaineers' total offense (3657 of 4230 yards).

When Davis was asked on Friday what the most intriguing matchup of the bowl game would be, he joked, "The 13 guys we're going to try to play on defense against Pat White."

The fifth-year senior Mountaineer quarterback runs the read-option offense as well as anybody in the country, according to Davis. White threw for 1,510 yards and ran for another 919 this season, totaling 26 touchdowns. Devine provides the Robin to White's Batman, scampering for 1,228 yards on a 6.4 yards-per-carry average.

"It's difficult [to stop them], especially if you're not disciplined," sophomore cornerback Kendric Burney said. "The Georgia Tech game has helped us out a lot, just for the fact that we know how disciplined that you have to be. So hopefully we can just go out there and do exactly what the coaches are telling us to do and I believe our game plan is definitely going to help us out."

Oddly enough, West Virginia ranks 12th nationally in rushing with 217.2 yards per game, but only has seven rushing touchdowns to its credit in the red zone.

North Carolina's defense has ridden the aforementioned turnover margin all season long, which has helped to disguise the ACC's second-worst defense, statistically speaking, which gave up an average of 357.9 yards per outing.

The Tar Heels sold out its 22,000 ticket allotment for the bowl game, spurring the complete sellout of the 73,000-plus Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN).

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