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September 21, 2012
Ten Keys: ECU at UNC
Tar Heel Illustrated prepares fans for Saturday's backyard brawl between in-state rivals East Carolina and North Carolina in Kenan Stadium with our weekly '10 Keys' feature. Gametime is set for 3:30 pm at Kenan Stadium, and will be televised on ESPNU.
UNC posted a convincing victory last fall East Carolina in Greenville---its third straight win in the series after losing to ECU back in 2007. The Tar Heels are 11-2-1 all-time against its local nemesis, including five wins in six contests since the series picked back up in 2001.
START FAST, FINISH STRONG
The Tar Heels have shown during the past two weeks that they have a talented football team capable of playing at a winning level. Inconsistency has been an enemy greater than either of the last two opponents, although Wake Forest and Louisville deserve credit for beating UNC. As much as anything, this game against East Carolina on Saturday is going to be a test of the Tar Heels' ability to concentrate, to play with energy and to play intelligently.
Getting off to a quick start on both sides of the ball is important for UNC not only for the simple fact that it will help them win the game, but it will also greatly aid in the team's confidence that they can come out and get off to a good start after last week's complete letdown at Louisville. The Tar Heels need to prove to themselves that they can come out with intensity, seize the initiative, and take care of a ball game from the outset.
On the flip side, UNC needs to finish strong and not allow themselves to get complacent in the second half if they do build a lead. They were in control against Wake Forest put were never able to put the Demon Deacons away. By getting off to a good start and then finishing, UNC will put themselves in position to take down the Pirates.
Redshirt freshman running back Romar Morris is a heck of a football player, regardless of whether he is running the ball out of the backfield, catching it or fighting through the opposition to block a punt, all of which he did quite well against Louisville. Who knows when or if Giovani Bernard will return and be in the form he displayed during his brief appearance in the opening game. The closest thing UNC has to Bernard is Morris, who has now proven he is more than just a "speed back." A.J. Blue is an outstanding runner and athlete as well.
Given the issues UNC has with its wide receivers, the Tar Heels would be well-served to throw the ball to Morris and Blue more and get those two isolated in space and let them make plays. There is certainly no reason to bury Blue, but it is apparent that Morris has the potential to the kind of player who wins ball games. Get him the ball more on Saturday, and he will almost surely respond with a big day at Kenan Stadium.
When UNC has played its assignments on defense and done so with a great deal of energy and passion, the Tar Heels' defense has been virtually impossible to run against so far. The pass rush has been strong but just shy of bringing down opposing quarterbacks, usually because the secondary has not covered well enough. If they're all over the receivers, the quarterback has to take critical extra time to deliver the ball---time that UNC's defensive line can take advantage of.
If the secondary can cover a couple seconds longer without giving the QB an opening, UNC could potentially sack the quarterback two to three more times a game. This would be especially true if the defense continues to stop teams from running successfully. Then the Tar Heels can dictate when the opposition throws. This is the week the secondary has to emerge as a force and combine with the front to provide the team with a unified defense that will return Carolina's potent offense to the field as many times as possible.
UNC displayed resiliency in the second half against Louisville by coming from behind to nearly win the game on its final possession. Had the Tar Heels shown some of that resiliency in the first half, they might have won. The point is the Tar Heels cannot get down on themselves as individuals or as teammates when East Carolina makes positive plays. The Pirates have recruited athletes as well, and this is a capable team that is going to play with great effort and emotion on Saturday.
Carolina's chances of steamrolling the Pirates is highly unlikely, so being mentally tough and responding positively to any success ECU enjoys will be one of the biggest keys in this game. Carolina cannot be a fragile team. Beginning with this game, mental toughness is going to have to become one of UNC's consistent traits if the Tar Heels are going to enjoy a winning season and make the most of this transition year with Coach Larry Fedora and his staff.
Field position is always an important part of football, and one of the best ways to provide one's self with good field position is to return kicks well. Whether the Tar Heels are fielding punts or kickoffs, they need to be smart and make the most of each opportunity on Saturday. Quarterback Bryn Renner is outstanding, and he will only get better and better at running this fast-paced spread offense as the season progresses.
With the offensive line he has and the skill players he can utilize, the more times UNC gets a reasonably short field on Saturday, the greater the chances Renner and the offense will produce touchdowns. The return game does not just mean running for long gains, either. There are times when the offense will benefit greatly if Morris and Sean Tapley down the ball if it is kicked into the end zone on a kickoff. The new rule puts the ball on the 25-yard line in those situations, and that is good field position -- much better than getting tackled inside the 20. On the flip side, the Carolina kickoff and punt coverage can help its defense, and eventually the offense, by pinning he Pirates as deeply as possible every time UNC gets a chance. The Tar Heels have been good in the kicking game this season. A superior performance from these teams on Saturday could make the difference in the game. It nearly did against Louisville.
GET A PICK (OR TWO OR THREE)
East Carolina quarterbacks Rio Johnson and Shane Carden, between them, have thrown five interceptions in three ball games, so watching film this week, UNC's players and coaches should have seen some potential opportunities to step in front of a few balls themselves. Against a team that's going to throw all over the place and try to match Carolina's offensive pace and precision, UNC could do itself a big favor both in terms of momentum and field position by getting a key interception at the right time.
The Tar Heels made some plays defensively in the second half against Louisville to give themselves a chance to win, but naturally they weren't able to make enough big plays, such a key interception of Teddy Bridgewater, to give themselves an even better chance. Against this opponent and an offense that is going to put a lot of balls up in the air, the Tar Heels need to take advantage and get at least one interception. It will be a huge help.
Through this year's early season schedule, East Carolina's players have shown a unique propensity to pick up fumbles on defense and turn them into points. Strong safety Chip Thompson recovered a fumble and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown in ECU's season-opening triumph over Appalachian State, while Montese Overton, a one-time UNC recruit, returned a fumble 16 yards for a score in last week's victory over Coach Fedora's former team, Southern Miss.
If Bernard does return, one of the big questions is whether or not he'll be rusty. Another question that could be asked of Bernard or anyone else running the ball for Carolina is can they avoid putting the ball on the ground?
Against this particular team, which has shown ability so far this season to capitalize at the highest level defensively on opposing team's mistakes, the Tar Heels can afford to oblige the Pirates and make it easier for them. If Carolina doesn't fumble, it makes ECU play real defense against them and that could be a tough thing for them if the UNC offense clicks the way it has at times this season.
KEEP AN EYE ON HARDY
Coach Fedora mentioned East Carolina's Justin Hardy, a 6-0, 185-pound wide receiver, by name---or at least by number---this week when talking about the Pirates and the things they did. And when looking at the stats, its easy to see why the Tar Heel linebackers and secondary will be keeping a particularly close eye on No. 2 in the white jersey Saturday.
A former prep teammate of Erik Highsmith at West Craven High in Vanceboro (N.C.), Hardy has more than twice as many receptions (19) as anyone else on the ECU roster through its first three games. And like Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro, Hardy can be the difference-maker in the ECU passing game that carves up UNC's back seven and exposes them for big gains if the Tar Heels allow it to happen.
UNC simply can't afford to have Campanaro Syndrome and allow Hardy to beat them over the middle. If that means different coverages or more coverage of Hardy specifically, so be it. Just don't let this guy beat you.
With 241 receiving yards and three touchdowns already this fall, it's abundantly clear that ECU's cornerbacks and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley are leaning heavily on Hardy. Which means that from UNC's perspective, if you slow him down, you've got a much better chance of shutting ECU down as a whole.
GET THE BALL TO THE QB
One of the things that's been one of the more nagging issues with the transition to the spread offense through three games is getting the ball effectively each and every time from the center to the quarterback. Going in the shotgun every play leaves a lot of room for the ball to get loose, and so far there's been multiple costly times where the ball has gotten loose. And on those plays, even when UNC didn't turn the ball over, they essentially gave away a play along with field position.
Carolina can't help East Carolina's defense with this type of thing. It helped Louisville tremendously, at least in the first half. Bryn Renner did make the most of one botched snap in the third quarter against the Cardinals with a good run, and he may have to improvise like that again Saturday. Ideally Russell Bodine, Peyton Jenest, or anyone else playing that position for the Tar Heel will put it in Renner's chest every time but if nothing else, keep it off the ground. Don't give away a play and increase the likelihood of a punt with something that can so easily be avoided with more concentration and execution.
"It's the centers job to get the quarterback the ball and do it each and every play. Everybody overlooks him until he makes mistakes, but that guy is the most important guy. If we don't get the ball it doesn't matter. Nothing else matters. You can have the best players in the world on your team," said Coach Fedora.
"If you can't get the ball to the quarterback it's not going to matter. So it boils down to he's just got to make sure he gets the snap first before he doesn't anything else."
MATCH ECU'S INTENSITY
One thing can be known for certain about this game. East Carolina's players, coaches, and its fans that make the trip to Chapel Hill are going to be fired up. Every time they play Carolina they see a big opportunity---a chance to earn big-time bragging rights and pride that can last for years. Ask Pirate fans what it's like when they beat N.C. State or Duke, and how they like to rub it in to their Wolfpack and Blue Devil friends when that happens. And after more than 30 years of futility against the Tar Heels, ECU fans got that chance with hated Carolina fans when the Pirates knocked them off in Greenville back in 2007.
While it can be argued that this game is much more important from East Carolina's perspective, UNC will be foolish to have this attitude coming into the game, and it's highly unlikely that the Tar Heel players and coaches will feel that way. They need this win desperately coming off two tough road losses in games that UNC very well could have won. And it's not like ECU hasn't faced a tough road environment. They went into Columbia and played South Carolina, so they likely won't be intimidated at all.
It's huge for Carolina to come out early on Saturday and match's East Carolina's emotion and intensity, and to coin a phrase, take their best punch. ECU will fight and claw to make this a ball game. This is their chance to bully a bully, so to speak.
And if UNC comes out flat and emotionless like they did in Louisville, ECU will bully them. But if the Tar Heels are focused and wired to play offensively, and flying around with a chip on their shoulder on defense, particularly early in the game, they can send notice to ECU that they're in big trouble.