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October 27, 2011

In the Trenches: North Carolina

North Carolina and Wake Forest renew one of the oldest college football rivalries in the country Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill. UNC and Wake Forest have been playing each other in football going all the way back to 1888, and this year the teams play with heavy implications in the Atlantic Coast Conference divisional races.

Wake Forest (5-2, 4-1 ACC) is still very much alive in the ACC Atlantic Division despite its recent loss to Virginia Tech, as the Demon Deacons can set up a showdown in Death Valley with Clemson November 12 for the Division title if they can find a way to knock off UNC.

The Tar Heels (5-3, 1-3 ACC) are reeling after consecutive losses to Miami and Clemson, and head coach Everett Withers will definitely be feeling the heat even more if he can't get Carolina in position to play a good game on Homecoming in Kenan Stadium against Wake.


What is the current injury report for the Tar Heels, and how great of an impact do you think it will have on them against Wake Forest and the rest of this season?


In some ways North Carolina has gotten healthier as a whole over the past couple of weeks, but don't say that to guys like Matt Merletti, who was lost for the season in the Clemson game to an unfortunate knee injury, or others like redshirt freshmen Reggie Wilkins (ankle) and Sean Fitzpatrick (head/concussion), who will both have to sit out against the Demon Deacons.

Losing Merletti was an especially rough blow for the Tar Heels given everything else that's happened in the program lately.

Merletti was a rock in the secondary and on special teams on gamedays, and in practice and around the Kenan Football Center the rest of the time. Merletti is a model young man who does everything right, and he's overachieved throughout his entire UNC career.

For a Wake Forest fanbase that can find it pretty easy to be cynical about everything that's happened to the North Carolina program over the last year and a half with the NCAA investigation and firing of former coach Butch Davis, Merletti is the type of kid that Demon Deacon fans would have been proud to call one of their own.

Carolina has been making the necessary adjustments this week in practice to overcome the loss of Merletti. Senior Jonathan Smith, himself coming back from an injury that's held him out for a couple weeks, will return to the starting lineup against the Demon Deacons, replacing Merletti.

Without any doubt looking at it objectively, this is an area that Wake Forest has to go into the game looking like it might be able to exploit. It's the question of whether Wake Forest's execution and precision can outdo Carolina's athleticism in the secondary.

Coach Withers said Thursday afternoon before his team's practice that the Tar Heels would have running back Giovani Bernard at its disposal Saturday, and that he would likely start the game in the offensive backfield.

Tar Heel senior running back Ryan Houston and junior wide receiver Jheranie Boyd were both seen at practice Thursday wearing red 'no contact' jerseys, but they are both expected to be ready to go on Saturday. In addition, Withers gave a favorable report on senior fullback Curtis Byrd.

So right now it looks like UNC will be without Wilkins and Fitzpatrick among players that would otherwise be active, as well as overcoming the loss of Merletti. Most everyone else that wasn't previously injured should be available Saturday for the Tar Heels.


North Carolina has gone through a rough patch with two consecutive losses, and the schedule does not appear to get any easier, so how significantlyarethe players being affected by what's going on with the NCAA, change in athletics director and uncertainty with the head coaching situation?


To a man, North Carolina's players and Coach Withers have said all the right things, that the NCAA situation is not affecting them in the least bit.

Certainly the players have got enough on their minds focusing on the current football season as well as the tremendous academic workload of college, and I truly believe this coaching staff has this team's collective head in the right place for the moment. The team's collective morale over the next few weeks, for better or for worse, will be a barometer of how well the team is playing on Saturdays.

I think if anything, the players themselves are worried about trying to win football games. They have continually said for months that they have no control over the situation, so why worry about it? That's been a regular theme from prominent guys like quarterback Bryn Renner and several others going back to the spring.

No question this team has not put together its best full four quarters of football together in a single game, and there's the question whether it actually will do it. But I don't think the team is worried about the new head coach right now. They can't afford to look that far ahead.

The bottom line is that Everett Withers is the coach of North Carolina until at least the end of November. We've seen sad farewells after the Duke game in the past from the likes of Carl Torbush and John Bunting, and it could be happening again this year. But for now this team is truly trying to keep its focus where it belongs, on football and the upcoming opponent.

It seem that Withers' 'Bend but don't Break' defensive philosophy isn't working, and the coaching staff is holding back the athleticism it has, especially with its front seven. The Tar Heels appeared to get solid pressure on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the first quarter last week, so it's obvious the talent is there. Should Wake Forest expect Carolina to be more aggressive in its defensive schemes this week?

North Carolina has attempted mightily to bring a quality pass rush with only its defensive line often this season as the coaches break in young linebackers like Travis Hughes, Norkeithus Otis, Darius Lipford, and others. The Tar Heels have the ability to give Wake Forest's offensive lines a lot of fits up front, and we suspect that UNC will attempt to create some mismatches up front and try to exploit weaknesses in the Demon Deacon pass protection.

From a purely physical man-to-man standpoint, North Carolina has the edge in the defensive line vs. Wake's offensive line battle. Wake's offensive line has kind of been 'bend but don't break' itself this season, and they're going to need to come together this week and give Price time to throw. Wake has given up 20 sacks so far this fall---more than anyone else in the ACC---and that fact certainly hasn't been lost on Carolina's players and coaches this week in practice. So we suspect that UNC will try to bring pressure from a multitude of places at different points, with the defensive line in theory driving it all.

Carolina is breaking in a couple of new starting safeties in Tre Boston and Jonathan Smith, so clearly this is an area that the Demon Deacons are probably going to try and punch holes in. We noticed at UNC's practice this week that the Tar Heels were working a 'nickel back' rotation with a fifth defensive back, so we suspect we'll see quite a bit of that scheme as the Carolina attempts to slow down the Wake Forest aerial assault.

In terms of whether UNC will be more aggressive this week depends on individual situations in the game, and also how you define 'being more aggressive.' A team can be more aggressive with a certain defensive line tactic such as a twist or slant without sending any blitzing linebackers. Or based on a certain formation by the opposing offense, the defense could send heavy pressure on one side of the field with blitzing linebackers and rushing defensive linemen while attempting to blanket another part of the field farther downfield.

No question the Tar Heels have attempted to study down Wake Forest's passing scheme in an effort to take away Price's options and force him into mistakes like Virginia Tech did. How the Tar Heel defensive line plays will go a long way in determining how well Carolina neutralizes Wake's emerging young signal-caller.


Senior Ryan Houston finally topped freshman Gio Bernard in rushing output with his performance last week at Clemson. Is Houston beginning to turn the corner, giving UNC more of a two-back tandem, or was is more the fact Bernard was recovering from an injury? And do you think Bernard will be more effective this week against a Wake Forest defense that has been suspect against the run this season?


As mentioned before, Houston was wearing a red 'no contact' jersey in practice on Thursday, but he's expected to play Saturday against the Demon Deacons.

North Carolina's coaches will readily tell you they would have preferred to get Houston and another backup, sophomore A.J. Blue, more work earlier this season, but the stellar play of Bernard necessitated him being on the field.

Over a stretch of five games prior to last weekend's loss to Clemson, Bernard has rushed for 100 or more yards in each game---the first time since Ethan Horton in 1984 that North Carolina had a running back gain 100 or more yards over that many consecutive contests.

Just as Wake Forest is likely to try and throw the football against Carolina's banged-up secondary, UNC is virtually assured to come out and try to establish itself on the ground Saturday. They've got a healthy offensive line and Bernard is considerably better off this week than last week to play according to Coach Withers.

How much Houston plays will be determined by a) whether Bernard re-aggravates the hip injury that's been bothering him of late, and b) how well Bernard is running the ball. If Bernard shows off the speed, explosiveness, and vision he's shown at other points this fall, UNC may very well try to ride him to victory over the Demon Deacons like a champion thoroughbred.


How do you see the matchup between Carolina's passing attack and Wake's stellar secondary playing out?


Wake Forest's secondary has been playing well this season---a big reason why the have a positive turnover margin and sit with a 4-1 record in ACC play so far this fall. Although they're giving up an average of 231 receiving yards per game to opposing teams, Wake Forest ranks in the top third in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, and the team's seven interceptions ranks a respectable seventh in the league.

North Carolina has several options in its passing game, as UNC has been throwing to the running backs, H-Backs, and tight ends as well as primary wide receiver Dwight Jones. Boyd got more into the mix last week with a pair of touchdown grabs against Clemson, and Wake Forest will want to know where No. 87 in powder blue is at all times on Saturday.

Bryn Renner is good enough to pick apart Wake Forest's secondary kind of like Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas did at times in Winston-Salem if he can get the necessary time to throw. Wake Forest's defensive line can greatly help its defensive backs by being able to get their own pressure on Renner and force him out of his comfort zone. While Renner has been outstanding for a first-year starting quarterback this season when he's been given time to throw, teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Wake Forest that could consistently get defensive pressure on him and rattle him forced him into mistakes.

At the end of the day, it appears that this game could very well come down to turnovers, and whether or not Wake Forest's secondary can get a key interception of Renner at the right time. Georgia Tech was able to pick Renner off midway through the third quarter down in Atlanta in September, and that play shaped the outcome of the remainder of the game. If Wake forces UNC into the same type of mistakes they made against Clemson, they'll come to Chapel Hill and probably win.

No question UNC has made ball protection a priority this week, so we expect guys like Erik Highsmith and T.J. Thorpe, who have each fumbled in the last two games, to make a more concerted effort to hang onto the ball when it comes to them.

Wake Forest's secondary does a fantastic job of preparing to make interceptions by working on top drills and other situational plays in practice each week. Given that these teams seem to otherwise be fairly evenly-matched, it could very well be one of these breaks on a tipped ball or a good read by a Demon Deacon defensive back that makes the ultimate difference on Saturday.






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