The Tar Heels (7-4, 4-3 ACC) are favored by 24.5 points in the first game between these two programs since 2008. UNC lead the overall series 35-33-1, including a 17-11-1 mark in Chapel Hill.
Due to the NCAA handing down a one-year postseason bowl ban in March, North Carolina is ineligible for the postseason in Larry Fedora’s initial season. The new coaching staff, however, can equal the most wins for the program since 1997 with a victory on Saturday.
Fedora told his senior class immediately following the postseason ban ruling that they were free to transfer to any school of their choice, but those 17 players, including standouts such as linebacker Kevin Reddick, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, offensive guard Jonathan Cooper and wide receiver Erik Highsmith, never wavered in their decision to finish their college careers as Tar Heels.
Their intent was to finish the transition from the Butch Davis era and help build a firm foundation for the Fedora era. And while winning the Coastal Division title is technically off the table, the Tar Heels can tie Georgia Tech for the best record in the division.
“Those are things that we wanted to do when we set out at the beginning of the season,” Fedora said. “So it's still sit ting there right in front of us. Now all we have to do is prepare like we have each and every week and play with passion and a certain energy level and focus that we need on Saturday. If we do those things, we will feel very good about this year.
“Are there things we're going to regret this year? You bet there are. No doubt about it, but that's why you have to play each and every week and you have to be ready to play. Our guys understand there is a lot to play for, and I think they're really excited about playing this game.”
The key matchup on Saturday will be North Carolina’s explosive offense against Maryland’s gritty defense. (4-7, 2-5 ACC). The Tar Heels rank 11th nationally in scoring offense (40.2 ppg) and 17th in total offense (484.8 ypg), while the Terrapins rank 15th in total defense (322.6 ypg) and 20th in rushing defense (123.9).
North Carolina’s 484.2-yard average is more than 40 yards per game higher than the single-season school record of 441.8 (‘83).
UNC running back Gio Bernard (118.3 ypg, 13th nationally) headlines UNC’s offensive attack, although the red-shirt sophomore has been limited to 135 yards and one touchdown on the ground over the past two weeks.
“When you take a look at North Carolina offensively, you're going to line up and load up the box,” Maryland head coach Randy Edsall said. “They're going to throw the bubble screens, they're going to throw the lookies, they're going to do things to take advantage of what you're trying to do to shut the run down.”
While teams have been successful in limiting Bernard’s effectiveness in recent weeks, quarterback Bryn Renner (248-of-383 passing, 3,051 yards, 23 TD, 7 INT) has capitalized in the passing game by throwing for more than a 1,000 yards in his past three outings.
Freshman wide receiver Quinshad Davis has been a significant benefactor in catching 29 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown over the same period.
“Not only do you have to be sound if you're going to look to take the run away, but you've also got to be cognizant of the fact that they're going to fake the ball to [Bernard] and then throw it outside,” Edsall continued. “You have to do a good job of being able to defend the whole field and defend everybody because with the quarterback and the receivers that they have, they've got a chance to hurt you either way.”
The North Carolina defense (388.3 ypg, 55th nationally) was dealt another blow when the school announced on Thursday that starting cornerback Jabari Price would miss Saturday’s game due to injury. UNC will officially be without 13 players for its season finale.
That total, however, seems tame compared to what Maryland has been through this season. At one point this season, the Terrapins’ injury report listed 24 players out of action. Edsall’s squad has absorbed eason-ending injuries to its top-four quarterbacks, its leading rusher (Wes Brown), leading tackler (Demetrius Hartsfield) and second-leading receiver (Marcus Leak).
With its entire depth chart at quarterback out with injury, converted freshman linebacker Shawn Petty (23-of-49, 292 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) has taken the reins of Maryland’s offense for the last three games, all losses.
“I don’t know how he’s doing it,” Renner said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. You don’t wish any team to have that type of situation they’re having over there, but he’s done a great job coming in and playing well.”
Petty will lean heavily on freshman wide receiver Stefon Diggs (46 rec, 766 yards, 6 TD) to carry the offensive load against a Tar Heel defense that’s proven to be susceptible over the second half of the season.
A win on Senior Day would improve North Carolina’s home record in 2012 to 6-1, matching last season’s mark. It would be the first time in Kenan Stadium’s history that a UNC team had won 12 home games in a two-year span.
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