North Carolina enters this 104th showdown between rivals as a seven-point favorite. The Tar Heels are 3-4-1 against the spread this season, but have failed to cover the betting line in each of their last three outings. That trend falls in line with the notion that UNC has underperformed in recent weeks due to a mistake-prone offense and a rather accommodating pass defense.
The Tar Heels coughed up a season-high six turnovers last Saturday in their 59-38 loss at Clemson to push their season total to 18 and reduce their turnover margin to minus-0.75, good for 103rd nationally. UNC has only won the turnover battle once this season (ECU).
Red-shirt sophomore Bryn Renner (147-of-203 passing, 1,857 yards, 16 TD) ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency (166.4), but has thrown an ACC-worst nine interceptions. Even so, Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe has had positive things to say about Renner and his arsenal of offensive talent that includes running back Gio Bernard (141 carries, 811 yards, 9 TD) and wide receiver Dwight Jones (48 catches, 703 yards, 8 TD).
"You just don't see any weaknesses up front," Grobe said. "Their offensive line is very good at protecting him. As I mentioned, they're doing a good job with their running backs and offensive line running the football. I think they've got three or four really talented receivers, they get the ball to their tight end. So I think he's got a really, really good supporting cast. He looks really comfortable with those guys out there, so he's running the offense well."
Wake Forest will attempt to force more turnovers with a blitzing approach out of its 3-4 defensive scheme. The Demon Deacons rank 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense (114.9) and have intercepted seven passes on the season. Freshman cornerback Merrill Noel has a NCAA-best 16 pass breakups.
"They want to zone blitz you and try to create havoc," UNC head coach Everett Withers said.
The Tar Heels have encountered their fair share of blitzing opponents through eight games, and Rutgers and Georgia Tech both capitalized in forcing a combined seven turnovers.
Left tackle James Hurst was unable to provide an answer earlier this week as to why UNC has been susceptible to the blitz.
"It's hard to put your finger on it," Hurst said. "There's some plays where you seem to block it perfect and they just bring that eighth guy down into the box and the guy makes a play. And then there are other plays where we miss assignments. [We] may not fully understand the blitz that's being brought and maybe pick up the wrong guy, but that's something that we can correct."
Wake Forest sophomore quarterback Tanner Price (135-of-220 passing, 1,821 yards, 14 TD, 3 INT) has been able to avoid pressure directed his way by extending plays and moving in the pocket. The result has been a Demon Deacon passing attack that ranks 24th nationally (285.0 ypg) and a plus-0.71 turnover margin (21st).
"Watching him on film, he's a smart quarterback," UNC defensive end Kareem Martin said. "He knows when to run. He doesn't really like to, but when he does run, it's always a good decision. So we've just got to make sure that we contain him so that he's not able to break outside."
North Carolina's secondary has been worn out throughout the course of the season due to youth and inexperience, allowing 263.4 passing yards per game (101st). That unit will have to absorb a significant blow as senior starting safety Matt Merletti is out for the season with a MCL injury suffered against Clemson.
Withers told reporters on Thursday that his defense has practiced a "plaster drill" all week in an attempt to prepare for Price and to make him step up in the pocket instead of getting out on the edges.
While North Carolina's hopes of an ACC Coastal Division crown are essentially over, the team can still win the state championship by beating all of the in-state schools on its schedule. UNC defeated East Carolina, 35-20, on Oct. 1, and has in-state games remaining against Wake Forest, N.C. State and Duke.
"To win the state championship was one of our goals coming in to the season," Martin said. "That would be big. I wasn't able to get one in high school, so to be able to get one in college would be good. To say that you're the best program in the state – that's a lot of bragging rights with there being five schools in the state of North Carolina."
The Demon Deacons are looking to sweep all three of its in-state ACC opponents for the third-straight time ('06, '07), but Grobe has not put the same level of emphasis on the goal that UNC's coaching staff has this week.
"We talked about it yesterday, and the thing I told our kids is that's not important," Grobe said. "That's not what we need to be focused on. My biggest concern is all these outside things – the Big Four and going to a bowl game, getting bowl eligible – all those kind of things that really don't matter. We've got North Carolina next, and they're really, really talented and a great football team, so we've got to go play our best football to have a chance to win."
Kickoff is set for 3:30pm and will be televised on ESPNU.