7:30 ESPN Thursday Night
After the Heels came out flat following a two hour rain delay they rallied to beat McNeese State and went into the bye week to focus on reestablishing their team identity. Coach Davis and the boys went back to the basics; shoring up the run game, making proper run fits on defense and instilling the pride in special teams that propelled UNC through training camp. Following an eleven day lay off the Heels will take on the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers University in Piscataway, NJ.
Butch Davis and Rutgers' head man Greg Schiano will be reunited for the first time following Schiano taking the Rutgers job as Davis left Miami for the NFL. Schiano regards Davis as one of his closest mentors; a man who showed him the ins and outs of head coaching, administrative duties, fund raising and overall recruiting philosophy.
Both teams limp into this game off of disappointing openers in week one; Carolina, winning a one score game against McNeese State and Rutgers letting a close game get out of hand late, losing to nationally ranked Fresno State. With a week to lick their wounds and go back to the drawing board expect both teams to come out ready to prove themselves to the country on national television.
North Carolina's Defense vs Rutgers' Offense
Neither of these units was excessively pleased with their season debut. UNC gave up 391 yards to a spread option, quick passing McNeese State squad and Rutgers amassed 369 yards but could only muster one touchdown against a tough Fresno State team. However, there were some bright spots scattered amongst the struggling. For UNC EJ Wilson was named an ACC player of the week and linebackers Quan Sturdivant, Mark Paschal and Bruce Carter lead the team in tackles. For Rutgers tailback Kordell Young gained 94 yards and leading receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood had six receptions apiece.
This is going to be a great match up of two units designed to combat each other. Both are pro styled attacks with UNC's 4-3 squaring off against Rutgers' two back, double tight end and three receiver sets. The Scarlet Knights love the power running game and after losing Ray Rice to the NFL they have put the ball in the gut of Young to establish the run. UNC's defensive line is going to have to bow their collective neck to stop the North and South approach and give their linebackers spaces to fill and make tackles.
The Heels will be without Darrius Massenberg (knee scope) for this game and this means ends Greg Elleby and Darius Powell will have to step up to stymie the run attack. Against the pass watch for Vince Jacobs to fill a larger role speed rushing off the edge against this more traditional drop back passing attack.
Against the pass the back seven of the Tar Heels will have their hands full with the talented Rutgers receiving core. Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood are both coming off of 1,000 yard seasons and after not reaching the end zone in week one the tandem is hungry to get to the house. Kendrick Burney and Jordan Hemby will have to play tough defense, especially against the taller, physical Underwood but expect Deunta Williams and Trimane Goddard to give a lot of help over the top.
Unlike the Cowboys, Rutgers uses a lot of five and seven step drops with play action passing so the Tar Heel defensive line will be able to lend some support to the defensive backfield. Expect Coach Blake to have his boys ready and Marvin Austin, EJ Wilson and company to fire off the ball looking to get some sacks on fifth year quarterback Mike Teel.
North Carolina's Offense vs Rutgers' Defense
Greg Little, the UNC starting tailback, was confident heading into the McNeese State game but his lack of production has catapulted Shaun Draughn squarely into the Tar Heel running back mix. The Heels only obtained 67 yards of rushing from their running backs while the Rutgers defense surrendered 206 to Fresno State, alas something has got to give in this battle.
UNC's offensive line and running backs need to take advantage of the missed assignments, missed tackles and poor run fits made by the Rutgers front seven in order to run the football successfully. Rutgers is going to try and push the Heels linemen around with their stout defensive line in hopes of forcing UNC into becoming one dimensional.
The Scarlet Knights defensive backs will be just as busy as Carolina's because the two schools have equally talented receiving units. The UNC top three of Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster is going to test the Rutgers back seven a lot more than Todd Brandstater and Seyi Ajirotutu of FSU. Courtne Greene, Joe LeFeged and the McCourty brothers will be stretched by the Heels as TJ Yates works the ball to his three receivers and tight end Zach Pianalto.
Edge: North Carolina
North Carolina Special Teams vs Rutgers Special Teams
Rutgers had a strong showing from their punter Ted Dellaganna (39.8 avg, 3 punts inside 20) but their kicking game was horrendous as San San Te missed two field goals including a very makeable 22 yarder. The return units for the Knights were mediocre at best as their longest return was a 24 yard kickoff return by Tiquan Underwood.
The Heels return units were off the charts against McNeese State as Brandon Tate totalled 198 return yards between his four returns, including an 82 yard punt returned for a touchdown. He is without a doubt one of the nations elite returners and the pride the UNC return units take in blocking for him is what frees Tate up to have a shot at the spectacular every time he touches the ball. UNC's kicking game, a question mark heading into the 2008 opener, seems solidified with Casey Barth kicking field goals and Jay Wooten kicking the ball off deep. Terrence Brown had a strong showing pinning McNeese deep three times.
Brown's punts were strong as he averaged right at 39 yards; however, the UNC coverage units gave up a monster play to the Cowboys and another lengthy return on a Wooten kickoff. A 70 yard TD off of a reverse play during a punt return exposed the Tar Heel over pursuit and allowed McNeese to steal some of the momentum from Carolina. With experienced players like Matt Merletti, Ryan Taylor, Richie Rich and Bruce Carter on the coverage units the Heels should correct this flaw.
Edge: North Carolina
At first glance the two offenses having the edges makes it seem like the game will be a scorefest, however neither offense has demonstrated the ability to consistently take advantage of an opponents weaknesses. The defenses have their pride hurt a little and I think that with Schiano and Davis having defensive mindsets they will have those units firing on all cylinders.
Expect to see a battle for sixty minutes with both secondaries being tested vertically and linebacking cores flowing downhill to stop the North South run. With the smash happy LeFeged and Deunta Williams manning the back ends there should be some explosive hits on both sides and some unexpected play makers may emerge.
In the end UNC's defensive line is finally playing against a team that sets up perfect for their pro styled scheme. Cam Thomas and Austin should stuff the run early in the series to allow Austin to return on third downs with Wilson, Jacobs and Mullins to pressure Teel all night. If the secondary can take advantage when Teel is under duress there should be a few interceptions floating around the back end.
On offense the Heels line needs to improve their run blocking but this Rutgers defense has had problems of their own stopping the run. By getting Little and/or Draughn going early the Heels play action passing to Nicks, Tate and Foster will open up late. Establishing the run first has always been Davis' job one and this game against his former pupil will only serve to reinforce that goal.
The difference in this game could very well be the special teams, a facet in which Carolina has a solid edge. Ryan Taylor, the special teams captain, should have his core units ready to play Thursday night on the big stage of ESPN, after all Erin Andrews will be there watching. Expect Rutgers to keep the ball away from Tate and Carolina to attack on kickoffs and play strong contain on punt returns. They should win the special teams battle.
A great football game on Thursday night, expect it to go back and forth and be tight late in the game. Rutgers' kicking woes may very well come back to haunt them as may the unproven Casey Barth for the Heels. With Davis and Schiano coaching we'll get two solid football teams engaged in a football game that will be physical, smash mouth and crisply played throughout. This one is too close too call as the teams appear to be quite even in just about every aspect of the game.