Quarterback Advantage: North Carolina
It was disappointing to see a non-dominant effort from Jacory Harris against lowly Duke. Duke put a defense out on the field that was involved in a shootout against Wake Forest earlier in the year and yielded an absurd 54 points to the Demon Deacon offense. It’s unacceptable for the Miami offense to only muster 28 points against Duke (including a touchdown that the defense contributed) when the defense forces 7 turnovers. Harris finished the day completing half of his passes (17 of 34) for 224 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions while also rushing for a touchdown from 13 yards out. A positive to take from the game for Harris is the big zero in the interceptions column. Although he tossed up two passes that could’ve easily been picked off by the defense, he has now gone 10 quarters throwing only 1 interception—a statistic that Miami fans wouldn’t have imagined ever occurring earlier in the year. This week he’ll face a tough Carolina defense who ranks 29th in the FBS giving up 19.3 points per game and collected 5 interceptions against Virginia last week. The Carolina secondary intercepted Harris four times at their most recent meeting in Chapel Hill last November.
In that same game UNC played at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, VA, North Carolina starting senior quarterback T.J. Yates was stellar. He connected on 17 of his 22 passes throwing for 325 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. Yates is really starting to heat up right now; on the year he’s thrown 1,495 yards and 11 touchdowns through six games. He’s on pace to set career highs in both categories. Most impressive for Yates, however, is how he’s cut down on the interceptions. Last season he tossed 15 interceptions on the year, and halfway through this season he’s only thrown one. He’s also completing passes at a career best clip of 66.5%. Yates is in his fourth year with the Tar Heels and has never lost to Miami in his college tenure. He will, however, be without his favorite target in tight end Zack Pianalto, who was ruled out for the season earlier this week.
Running Backs Advantage: Miami (FL)
Redshirt freshman Lamar Miller is set to return to action this week after missing two weeks, first against Florida State and then against Duke. Miller wasn’t listed on the injury report for the game at Duke and Randy Shannon said he was only held out of the game so he can rest up for Saturday night’s affair. Miller’s speed and agility provides a solid complement to the bruising running style of starting running back Damien Berry. Speaking of Berry, he has really been carrying the load as of late in the Hurricane backfield. He’s surpassed the 20 carry mark in all of his last 4 games and has run for over 100 yards in the last three. Sophomore Mike James really ran well in his previous game against Duke. He carried the ball 8 times for 84 yards. It’d be nice to see him get some more touches down the road, but at the same time it’s difficult to please all four of the primary running backs for the Canes (including senior Graig Cooper, who recently returned from a lower extremity and has been running hard in limited playing time), especially when Berry is usually getting over 20 touches. This is the first game this season where the Hurricane backfield will truly have all four of its “horsemen” up and ready, assuming Mike James can go as he is questionable with a lower extremity.
The North Carolina rushing attack is led by senior Johnny White, who for the first time since his freshman season is genuinely healthy. White has carried the ball 86 times thus far in the 2010 season for 464 yards and a 5.4 yards per carry average, and he has scored on four rushing tries. Also with four rushing touchdowns is the man who spells White, senior Shaun Draughn. He, however, has accumulated most of his stats in the second halves of the team’s blowout victories against East Carolina earlier in the year and at Virginia last week. Although these aren’t the most superb running backs, run defense has to be a point of emphasis for the Hurricanes in practice this week. White is still capable of being a game-breaker. Plus, this is a defense that thrives on turnovers, which occur most often when the quarterback drops back to pass. In order to force Yates, and his lone interception on the year, into some turnovers, the Canes must first stop the running game.
Wide Receivers/ Tight Ends Advantage: Even
Miami’s receiving corps, originally thought out to be one of the premier groups in all of college football, has really regressed and disappointed this season. Although there was never really a clear-cut receiving option at tight end, many expected the depth at wide receiver on this football team would make it impossible for opposing defenses to gameplan for them. A defense could try to take away any one of Jacory’s options, but he would just find ways to get it to his plethora of other options. Travis, Benjamin, Laron Byrd, and Aldarius Johnson—all juniors coming into this program from that #1 ranked recruiting class from 2008 have not proven they can consistently get to an open spot and make a reception. True freshman Allen Hurns, who comes out of Carol City High where he grew up not too far from Sun Life Stadium, appears to be earning more reps and may be moving up the depth chart over Aldarius Johnson as the team’s #4 receiver. Leonard Hankerson has been the only consistent option for Harris to throw to this season as he’s been carrying the team’s passing attack on his shoulders, and even he has made some costly drops as of late. The most notable problem on this squad has been the third down conversions where they rank 77th in the FBS only converting on 38.37% of them. Tight end Richard Gordon is a decent blocker, but is no threat to dominate the middle of the field with his receiving presence. Many believed junior college transfer Chase Ford may provide that presence, but he may be on his way down on the depth chart with true freshman Asante Cleveland moving up. The Carolina secondary will be vulnerable come Saturday as they will be down two cornerbacks for the game.
North Carolina’s leading receiver this season has been their tight end, senior Zack Pianalto. The only leading he’ll be doing for the rest of the year is cheerleading as he’s been sidelined and ruled out for season earlier this week. It’s become evident that junior wide receiver Dwight Jones is committed to being that top receiving option for the Tar Heels. In NC’s game against Virginia he posted all kinds of career highs with 7 catches for 198 yards and 2 touchdowns. Sophomore Jheranie Boyd is also a big play threat on the opposite side. His production, on the other hand, has really tailed off after peaking in the first game of the season against LSU in which he had over 200 receiving yards including a 97 yard touchdown. He’s grown into more and more of a non-factor as the season has progressed. The loss of Pianalto for UNC is tremendous as Miami usually has difficulties covering tight ends.
Offensive Line Advantage: Even
All things considered, the Miami offensive line has been pretty solid. The line has only given up 8 sacks through six games. Last season they gave up an atrocious 35. Albeit against a less than formidable Duke defense, the O-line was certainly a plus to take out of the Canes last game. Virtually ever run in the A-gaps, directly up the middle and on either side of center Tyler Horn, were successful. Brandon Washington, now in his first full season as a starter, has been absolutely sensational at left guard. This is a line that should continue to get better as the season goes on. We have to remember that to start the season not one of this year’s starters were the starters on last year’s offensive line at the same position on it. Orlando Franklin and Joel Figueroa (who remains out) made moves to the outside while we brought in three new faces on the interior of the line. Seantrel Henderson played the whole game at Duke at right tackle and is improving week to week.
North Carolina’s offensive line has had similar success to that of the Canes. They’re very good in their pass blocking technique, and it shows on the field and even in the stats as a primary cause for quarterback T.J. Yates only throwing one interception is the fact that he’s rarely had any pressure on him when dropping back to pass. The UNC offensive line features two monstrous human beings at both guard positions, but the Miami offensive line is still much bigger overall.
Defensive Line Advantage: Miami (FL)
A lot of the credit for all the turnovers the Hurricanes have been able to force has to be attributed to the defensive line. Every game, minus the one against Florida State, you really see them flying around, penetrating opponents’ backfields, making tackles for losses, picking up sacks, and even picking off passes. Last week Micanor Regis intercepted a pass from Duke quarterback Sean Renfree and returned it for a touchdown in one of the more humorous pick sixes Cane fans will save in their memory vault. It appears after this week in practice that Regis will be working in with an 80% Josh Holmes as the first teamers at tackle with Adewale Ojomo seeing more first team reps over Olivier Vernon to play alongside Allen Bailey. Marcus Forston was seen with a cast on his right wrist earlier this week. Another injury to the interior line would devastate its depth, but fortunately, it appears Holmes will be back as this team’s run defense is a whole lot better when he’s in the lineup. The Miami defense, as a whole, leads the nation in tackles for losses. They collected 9 tackles for loss against Duke including sacks by Regis, Bailey, and freshman linebacker Kelvin Cain.
The UNC defensive line, despite being depleted by all the sanctions imposed on them by the NCAA due to player contact with NFL agents by defensive tackle Marvin Austin and defensive end Robert Quinn, have been impressive. Both of these players were projected first round NFL draft picks but have been ruled ineligible to play for the rest of this season. The Tar Heels have been scrambling a little bit to fill in all the spots on their defensive line, but have still been an extremely impressive group and have had some key contributions from a number of players. Most notably, junior defensive tackle Quinton Coples is tied for second on the team with 37 tackles and also leads the boys in blue with 9 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 9 quarterback hurries.
Secondary Advantage: Miami (FL)
Outside linebacker Sean Spence, along with cornerback Brandon Harris and strong safety Ray Ray Armstrong received midseason all-ACC first-team honors this week. Spence has really locked down his side of the field all year. Senior Colin McCarthy has been iffy in the middle, and after true freshman Kelvin Cain’s 9 tackle performance, including a sack, at Duke, it appears Cain may be splitting first team reps against North Carolina. This secondary has had some outstanding games recently. Against Duke the team forced 7 turnovers and against Clemson they forced 6. In the game against Florida State, Vaughn Telemaque had the team’s lone interception, but the defense didn’t have opportunities at turnovers that night predominantly because they couldn’t stop the run to force Christian Ponder to pass. Telemaque and Armstrong have proven to be a dynamic duo as the team’s last line of defense. Brandon Harris, now in his junior season, has blossomed into quite the shutdown corner everyone expected him to develop into coming out of Booker T. Washington High School. We should see both Ryan Hill and Brandon McGee playing at corner on the opposite side of Harris.
North Carolina’s stout defense is led by linebackers Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick, who rank 1 and 2 on the team in tackles with 38 and 37 respectively. The Tar Heels secondary has intercepted 11 passes on the year by 8 different players, including a five-interception performance in their most recent game versus Virginia. Interceptions by Carolina defenders have truly devastated the Canes in their last two meetings against the Tar Heels. In 2008 Miami was driving down by 4 in the final seconds of the game at what was then called Dolphin Stadium. Robert Marve threw a deep pass over the middle that hit Kayne Farquharson’s hands with his arms outstretched and landed gracefully into the grasp of a Carolina defender. Last year, Jacory Harris gift-wrapped four interceptions for the UNC defense including two that ended up going back the other way for six. The Carolina secondary, however, has received some demoralizing news this week as it was discovered that junior cornerback Charles Brown will be out for the remainder of the season and senior cornerback Kendric Burney will miss this weekend’s game against the Canes. This is a huge opportunity for the UM receivers to snap out of their slumping ways.
Special Teams Advantage: North Carolina
Special teams, which was perceived to be one of the primary strengths of this 2010 Miami squad, has been far from it. The kick return coverage has been abysmal, giving up long returns that are saved by a Matt Bosher tackle virtually every time out. Bosher has already missed three field goals halfway through the year, surpassing last season’s total. Last week against Duke Graig Cooper fumbled the opening kickoff resulting in a Blue Devil recovery and eventual field goal. Travis Benjamin has been taking punt returns, but mostly runs east and west once he gets his hands on the ball and gets dragged down for either a loss or minimal gain. Hopefully the return of Lamar Miller provides a spark for the Canes on kickoff returns.
North Carolina kicker Casey Barth is 6 of 7 on field goals this year and has converted on all 22 extra point tries coming in. Barth, however, has still not had to attempt a field goal of at least 40 yards. C.J. Feagles and Grant Shallock have split punting duties for the Tar Heels. Da’Norris Searcy handles punt returns for UNC with a 7.8 average; he also splits kick returns with the swift Jheranie Boyd.
Coaching Advantage: North Carolina
It’s Butch Davis vs. Randy Shannon—round 4. Shannon was Davis’ understudy back when he was the head coach of the Miami program, and Davis has had the best of Shannon for the first three rounds. Shannon is due for a victory against Butch as he’ll be at home and he’ll be facing a Carolina squad that has been depleted by injuries and suspensions. I’m going out on a limb here and saying Shannon finally gets the best of Davis in this game, but the clear coaching advantage here goes to Butch Davis. You can’t argue with 3-0 vs. 0-3.
David Furones may be contacted at email@example.com.