The Tar Heels (4-2) opened as a 3.5 favorite over the Hurricanes (4-2), but that line has jumped to 8.0 over the past five days. UNC leads the overall series, 8-7, and won three in a row before losing the past two meetings.
The reason for skyrocketing spread is two-fold. North Carolina is settling into Larry Fedora’s new schemes and has won three straight games, including a 48-34 dismantling of Coastal favorite Virginia Tech last week. Miami, despite being the only ACC program with a 3-0 record on league play, was embarrassed in two key nonconference games – 52-13 at No. 6 Kansas State on Sept. 8 and 41-3 at No. 7 Notre Dame last week.
The Tar Heels are 0-2 on the road with losses at Wake Forest and Louisville. Miami, on the other hand, has won both of its home games.
Offensively, North Carolina ranks ninth nationally in scoring offense (44.0 ppg) and 23rd in total offense (486.7 ypg). Running back Giovani Bernard () rushed for a career-high 262 yards and scored a touchdown last weekend, marking the most ever gained against the Hokies. The sophomore leads the nation with a 9.1-yards-per-carry average.
“I would like to think we can establish the run game against [Miami] because I think we’re good upfront and the running backs are running well, but we need to be able to use whatever we need to find a way to win the game,” UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson.
Running the ball against Miami hasn’t been much of a problem for anyone this season. The Hurricanes rank 100th or worse nationally in six key defensive categories, including 118th in total defense (510.0 ypg) and 116th in rushing defense (250.7 ypg).
Miami head coach Al Golden told reporters this week that his objective defensively has been focusing on making progress and moving forward.
“We're really not a defense right now that's focused on other people as much as we are just trying to improve ourselves and execute ourselves,” Golden said. “We're hoping for some continuity now in terms of our lineups. We have some guys growing up. We really don't have too many guys that haven't been exposed to a college game now or this level of competition.
“We need guys to step up and play well. And clearly if we're not good on third downs in the red zone against [North Carolina], it's not good. “
Despite those defensive struggles, the Hurricanes have managed to win four games on the arm of quarterback Stephen Morris (142-of-242 passing, 1,836 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT). The 6-foot-2, 214-pound junior threw for an ACC-record 566 yards in Miami’s 44-37 win over N.C. State two weeks ago.
Morris has several dangerous weapons at his disposal, including tailback Duke Johnson (60 carries, 381 yards, 5 TD) and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett (29 catches, 470 yards, 3 TD).
“They have a lot of speed at every one of their skill positions, a tremendous amount of speed,” Fedora said. “Their quarterback does a great job. I would say, to this point, this is the best offensive line that we’ve faced this year. Even though they’ve got one junior and the rest of them are sophomores, they’re very talented, very athletic.”
The Tar Heels rank 20th in total defense (312.3 ypg) but are allowing 226 yards per game through the air (62nd).
North Carolina’s trip to Miami will be a homecoming of sorts for 17 Tar Heels with Florida roots. Student-athletes are provided four tickets for each game throughout the season, so the South Florida contingent has been diligently to accumulate as many as possible for Saturday’s game.
“Since the beginning of the season – the Elon game – it’s been, ‘I’ll give you these tickets if you give me UM tickets,’” Miami native and UNC linebacker Tommy Heffernan said. “I’ve been wheeling and dealing since Week One… We’re just trying to get as many family and friends to the game as possible.”
Heffernan had surpassed 20 tickets leading up to Friday afternoon’s departure, while Bernard, cornerback Jabari Price and safety Tre Boston had gathered similar numbers.
A win over Miami would move North Carolina to 5-2 (2-1) and set up a pivotal Coastal Division showdown with Duke next weekend. And while the ACC voted last week to not recognize the Tar Heels if the boys in blue were to win their division, there’s nothing stopping them from playing the role of spoiler.
“We’re looking to destroy other teams so that we can mess it up for them,” senior linebacker Kevin Reddick said.
UNC last won in Miami, 28-24, in 2008 on Cam Sexton’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Brooks Foster with 46 seconds left in regulation.
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