Some members of the national media are questioning the Miami Hurricanes’ No. 8 ranking in the AP poll. Miami has gone down to the final minutes in three-straight close games to defeat unranked opponents.
The Canes head into Chapel Hill, North Carolina, looking to answer those questions and get their first convincing win in weeks.
The Tar Heels are losers of five-straight games going into Saturday’s matchup and hold an uncharacteristically poor overall record of 1-7, with an 0-5 mark in ACC play.
With 17 players out for the season and four players not healthy to play, UNC has been defined by injuries so far this year. It has lost six of its day-one starters for the rest of 2017.
As a result, the Tar Heels are second-to-last in overall team offense in the conference and third-to-last in rushing yards. They will also be without leading rusher Michael Carter, who is a freshman.
North Carolina redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt ranks just No. 10 in passing yards in the ACC and has started every game except the season opener.
“You have to just watch what they do schematically.” head coach Mark Richt said about planning for a team with many injuries. “There’s not a major change that I see – when one guy gets hurt, they put another guy in, which is typical.”
Redshirt senior cornerback Dee Delaney is probable for Saturday’s game and is the only player on the Hurricanes’ injury report.
Despite the injuries and 20-point odds favoring Miami, the Hurricanes’ history with the Tar Heels could make this a trap rather than the homecoming blowout it is anticipated to be.
UM holds a 10-9 all-time series lead, but the Canes have lost their last two matchups against the Tar Heels. The 20-13 loss last season was the second of a four-game losing streak.
“We’re just finding ways to win at the end of games,” Richt said. “We’re not foolish enough to think that we’ve arrived yet. I don’t think they believe that. They know we have to earn it.”
With four interceptions against Syracuse, Miami’s secondary is playing with a confidence that has drawn the attention of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
“There is a standard that we play with here,” Diaz said. “If you take the field with a ‘U’ on the side of your helmet, it is your responsibility to uphold your standard. No one cares if you’re a freshman, and you don’t get any sympathy. They’re not going to make it first-and-11 because you’re a first-year starter.”
The play of the defensive backs was once, and possibly still is, the team’s biggest doubt. But cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph has pivoted the pressure into motivation for his squad.
“I put a big question mark on the board at camp, and every day they saw that question mark,” Rumph said. “The best thing I can say about the corners is that they play together and they play for each other, and I think that’s the most important ingredient for a championship type of team.”
Sophomore cornerback Malek Young is a player poised to capitalize against UNC’s injured offense and cover Tar Heels leading receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who ranks No. 23 in receiving yards in the ACC.
“He’s a fearless competitor,” Diaz said. “He feels like he’s one of the top corners when he gets out there, and that’s what we instill in him every week. Just understanding that you’re going to go against the best guy, and you’re going to take him man-to-man, and I want you to take him out of the game.”
Freshman cornerback Trajan Bandy has stepped up to make a huge impact while Delaney has been nursing his injury. He has impressed the staff so much so that he drew a comparison to a heralded Canes legend.
“Trajan just wants to play the game,” Rumph said. “He reminds me of those throwback players like Sean Taylor and all those guys who just want to play ball. No matter where they’re at, he’ll stop everything and go play football.”
The late Sean Taylor is a player Bandy holds close to his heart. After Bandy committed to Miami, Taylor’s half-brother let him take pictures with Taylor’s 2002 national championship game jersey and gave him Taylor’s iconic helmet visor.
UM will kick off against UNC at noon Saturday, Oct. 28, in Kenan Memorial Stadium.