Idaho entered the scheduling discussion after Tennessee backed out of a home-and-home series with UNC in 2011. North Carolina is reportedly paying the Vandals $800,000 for this contest.
After back-to-back losses to Wake Forest and No. 19 Louisville, the Tar Heels responded with a solid 27-6 victory over East Carolina last week. There's still plenty of work to be done as both sides of the ball continue to adjust to the new schemes implemented by first-year head coach Larry Fedora.
North Carolina is averaging 71.5 plays per game, well below the 80-85 plays that Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson would like to run. The Tar Heels ran 72 plays against ECU, soaking up 23.1 seconds per play.
"I think we're building toward [a faster tempo]," said quarterback Bryn Renner, who has completed 90-of-133 passes for 1,191 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2012. "But I think every week it's a point in the locker room and a point from the coaching staff to just get the tempo started and get us going. I think we've improved light years from where we were for Elon, but it can always get better."
While UNC's goal is to go faster, the current tempo and offensive personnel up front has been enough to capture Idaho head coach Robb Akey's attention.
"Boy, they accelerate," Akey said. "They're going to run as many plays as they possibly can. They are capable of getting a stretch play executed and lined back up and already snapped the ball again in 13 seconds…
"They're going knock out the sun with their offensive line. The small guy is 300 pounds. That's the little fella. They're big, they're athletic, they're damn good. Their quarterback is a good player and they make plays."
After missing 44 combined assignments against Wake Forest and Louisville, UNC's defense performed better against the Pirates with only 10 or 11 MA's, according to associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning. Confidence, however, continues to be an issue.
"They're just not completely sure that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing or how they're supposed to be doing it," Koenning said. "It's still new. There's still so many new dadgum guys playing that it's an every day struggle."
North Carolina ranks 27th nationally in total defense (322.75 ypg), as well as leading the ACC in sacks (3.25) and tackles for loss (9.25), but Koenning indicated that the defensive staff has narrowed its package down every single week. While UNC totaled seven sacks against ECU, there were six or seven more that the Tar Heels failed to secure.
"We're pushing so hard that when we lift our thumb up, we should see our imprint," Koenning said. "We're really coaching these guys hard and they need it."
Idaho has struggled on both sides of the ball – 115th in scoring offense (16.75) and 104th in scoring defense (36.0) – although the Vandals do have a bright spot in junior quarterback Dominique Blackman. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder (84-of-116, 838 yards, 6 TD, 5 INT) ranks ninth nationally in completion percentage (73.11) and completions per game (29.0).
"I think he's come a long ways in a lot of ways," Akey said. "His decision-making is pretty strong, for the most part. I keep working with him on his focus. I love the swagger and the confidence that comes with Dom."
The overall focus for North Carolina the last two weeks in practice has not been the next opponent, but UNC itself. Energy level continues to be stressed as much as the game plan for Saturday.
"That's what we're looking for in practice every day, just our energy level [and] if we're playing with the intensity that we need to," Fedora said. "We know there's going to be mistakes in practice right now with the game plan. But we want to see energy and we've seen that all week, so that's been good."
The third quarter could be pivotal in Saturday's matchup. Idaho has been outscored 44-7 in the third stanza this year, while North Carolina is outscoring its opponents 52-0.
A win over the Vandals would give the Tar Heels their first-ever win over a WAC conference school.