WVU-UNC Matchup Will Hinge on Defenses

Frank AhrensSenior Writer IDecember 23, 2008

I had a random encounter with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt in a Washington D.C. bar tonight (Well, not so random -- he’s from here; went to Maryland, I think.) and so of course I asked him how the Mountaineers would do against North Carolina in Saturday’s Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Van Pelt -- who was having a bit of a busman’s holiday, watching the Boise State-TCU game -- said, “They should be all right. But Carolina has a good defense. Don’t throw it, or they’ll pick it off and run it back.”

So, there you have SVP’s thumbnail analysis of the game.

WVU appears to be a slight underdog in the wagering. No doubt, Carolina’s defensive plan will be similar to every other team’s that has faced WVU over the past four seasons: Try to make Pat White beat you with his arm, not his legs.

WVU fans, aware that White is near the top of the school’s pass-efficiency leaders, will take that.

WVU and Carolina are both 8-4. They had two common opponents this season, Rutgers and UConn. Here’s how each fared:

- WVU beat UConn, at UConn, 35-13. Carolina beat UConn, at home, 38-12.

UConn dominated Carolina statistically, outgaining the Tarheels, 378 yards to 263 yards, and 23 first downs to 13 first downs, but committed three turnovers, one of which was an interception returned for a touchdown, and had an amazing three punts blocked, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

WVU trailed UConn at the half, 13-7, but then shut out the Huskies in the second half and scored four touchdowns, including three by Jock Sanders. WVU held UConn to 3-of-12 on third-down conversions.

- WVU beat Rutgers, at home, 24-17. Carolina beat Rutgers, at Rutgers, 44-12.

The tale here was similar to that of the UConn game. Rutgers outgained and out-first-downed Carolina, but committed four turnovers, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Rutgers also chose not to play pass defense. It should be noted that this was Rutgers’s second game of the year, well before the Scarlet Knights turned around their season.

WVU struggled against Rutgers, which was playing its fourth game of the season and improving. WVU went out to a 17-3 lead on two White touchdown passes, but let Rutgers back in it, needing a Scooter Berry bat-down of a Mike Teel fourth-down pass to seal the victory.

What can we glean from these two matchups? Carolina appears to have the classic bend-but-don’t-break defense, giving up plenty of yards but few points. Carolina is ranked 30th nationally in scoring defenses, giving up 20.3 points per game. WVU is ranked ninth, giving up 15.9 points per game. (And has the nation’s No. 1 red-zone defense.)

But we should also note that Carolina has a penchant for the big play on defense, and is opportunistic when given the chance. And, in watching highlights of Carolina’s games this seasons, I saw a lot of Tar Heels doing exactly what Van Pelt warned of: Picking off passes and running them back.