North Carolina (1-0) opened as a 7.5-point favorite over the Demon Deacons (1-0) and that spread swelled to 10 on Friday afternoon. The reasons were obvious. Not only did the Tar Heels throttle Elon, 62-0, over Labor Day weekend while Wake Forest had to rally to defeat Liberty, 20-17, but the boys in blue proved to skeptics that the transition from a pro-style approach to a spread offense and 4-2-5 defense could go smoother than most thought.
Even so, one game doesn’t make a season, especially when that opponent posted a losing record at the FCS level in 2011.
The Tar Heels were embarrassed at Groves Stadium in 2007, 37-10, and last won in Winston-Salem in 2004. Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe, on the other hand, has had plenty of success in the Old North State, holding a 30-8 career record against in-state opponents and a 4-3 mark against UNC.
North Carolina churned out 524 yards on 74 plays in Fedora’s no-huddle spread on Saturday, despite the first-year head coach “shutting it down” midway through the third quarter. The defense posted its first shutout since 1999 and the special teams got involved with an ACC record 260 punt return yards.
Fedora suggested earlier this week that offensive coordinator Blake Anderson utilized roughly 15 percent of the playbook, while the defense schemes were also bare bones. Wake Forest’s coaching staff, however, has spent its time this week watching film from Fedora’s time at Southern Miss.
“The Southern Miss film has helped us quite a bit in preparation and watching them,” Grobe said. “I think Larry made the statement in the paper that they're pretty basic against Elon, and they'll kind of expand their package when they go further into the season. So I would expect to see more things out of them.
“But I think we have a good handle on what they do. The problem is you may have a good handle on what they do, but stopping them is another question.”
North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner completed 14 of his 21 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns against Elon. The lone blemish on his stat line was an interception due to a wide receiver running the wrong route.
Returning first-team All-ACC running back Gio Bernard earned the headlines, though, by totaling 203 all-purpose yards on just 13 touches. The red-shirt sophomore scored touchdowns by rush, reception and punt return before leaving the game in the second quarter due to an apparent left knee injury.
Despite telling reporters on Monday that he expected a full week of practice, Bernard was limited in drills on Tuesday and UNC’s injury report on Thursday offered no update on his status.
Fedora refuses to discuss injuries – striking a stark contrast from his predecessor in Chapel Hill – but said on Wednesday that Bernard was moving around well and “feeling pretty good about everything.”
If Bernard is unable to play, backups Romar Morris (10 carries, 49 yards) and A.J. Blue (9 carries, 39 yards, 2 TD) will likely rotate in the offensive backfield. The Demon Deacons, however, are bracing for Bernard to play.
“With these guys, I think what you'd like to be able to do is focus on one side or the other and really work on the throw game and then not have to worry about the running game or vice versa,” Grobe said. “I think in this situation probably the most dangerous thing they do is run the football with a great player like Bernard.”
Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (2 tkl, 2 sacks) and middle linebacker Kevin Reddick (5 tkl, 0.5 TFL) pace a UNC defense that spread out 11 tackles for loss over 10 players. The Tar Heels forced four Elon turnovers, including a Jabari Price interception in the red zone.
Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price (16-of-28, 195 yards, TD, INT) is experience under center and senior wide receiver Michael Campanaro (9 catches, 97 yards, TD) serves as a quality target, but the Demon Deacons’ field four first-time starters on the offensive line against Liberty without much success.
Wake Forest totaled just 293 yards and a 2.6 yards-per-carry average.
Saturday marks North Carolina’s earliest ACC contest since opening against Georgia Tech in 2005, although that game took place on Sept. 10.
“It’s kind of weird - you don’t get those tune-up games anymore,” Renner said. “Every game is huge from this point on. We can’t take any game lightly. We have to prepare like it’s the Super Bowl every week. That’s what coach Fedora says.”
The Demon Deacons are hoping to revenge last season’s 49-24 debacle at Kenan Stadium with its sixth win in 10 outings against North Carolina.
"That's what we've been waiting for,” Campanaro said. “We've been looking forward to getting into ACC play. UNC is a big game, especially the way we went and played up there last year. Guys are ready and ramped up to get after them."
North Carolina leads the overall series with Wake Forest, 68-34-2, including a 20-13 mark on the road.
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