The Tar Heels (0-1) opened as a 21.5-point favorite against the Blue Raiders (1-0), but that spread has since shrunk to 18 points with the confirmation that starting quarterback Logan Kilgore (12-of-18 passing, 144 yards, TD) will play despite suffering a shoulder injury against Western Carolina last weekend.
These programs will play for the first time on Saturday, although there’s plenty of familiarity on UNC’s sidelines with the MTSU program. Larry Fedora first implemented his no-huddle spread scheme as Middle Tennessee State’s offensive coordinator in 1999, while current UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson replaced him in 2002. Tight ends coach Walt Bell and graduate assistant Luke Paschall both played at Middle Tennessee State from 2003-06.
While the Tar Heels were disappointed following their 27-10 loss at No. 6 South Carolina last Thursday, Fedora indicated his roster has filed that game away and is ready for the next one.
“One game doesn’t make our season,” Fedora said. “And actually, all of the goals that we have set have nothing to do with that first game. We do what we’re supposed to do and people won’t even talk about that first game at the end of the year. Nobody will even remember it.”
That road starts against the Blue Raiders, who are playing an ACC opponent for the ninth straight season. Middle Tennessee State is 3-5 over that stretch, including last season’s 49-28 victory at Georgia Tech - five weeks before the Yellow Jackets toppled UNC, 68-50, at Kenan Stadium.
“If there was any thought of flying in under the radar, it's ridiculous,” Kilgore said. “They know what type of team that Georgia Tech was last year and they know what we did to them … I don't look at it as if we are underdogs. You only get 12 opportunities and they are not going to waste one. Neither are we.”
UNC senior quarterback Bryn Renner doesn’t disagree.
“We understand how good of an opponent that we’re about to play,” Renner said. “We’re not going to look past them at all. We’ve been watching a ton of film since we had an extra couple of days and they’re a very athletic team. They can beat anybody any day.”
Renner (26-of-43 passing, 194 yards, TD) will attempt to ignite a Tar Heel offense that managed just 10 points in Columbia, marking the second-fewest points ever scored by a Fedora-coached team. UNC’s tempo was effective against the Gamecocks, however, tiring out one of the top defensive lines in the nation while running 79 plays for 293 total yards.
“They try to go as fast as they can, so we've got to do a good job of trying to get them a little bit behind the chains,” MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said. “First down is always critical for up-tempo teams, so we've got to do a great job on first down.”
UNC was 7-of-19 on third down conversions against South Carolina despite facing 3rd-and-7 or longer 15 times.
South Carolina surprised UNC by not bringing more pressure, according to Renner, but that won’t be the case this weekend. Second-year defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix spent most of the last decade in the same role at South Carolina and Ole Miss and brought significant pressure in MTSU’s 45-24 win over Western Carolina.
Defensively, North Carolina won’t be outsized up front this time around, but fatigue could be an issue. The Tar Heels, already thin due to scholarship limitations, will battle heat and Middle Tennessee’s up-tempo spread offense that has quality parts.
“It’s almost crazy the slew of fantastic offenses we’re going to have to play,” associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said, referring to September matchups with East Carolina and Georgia Tech. “Middle Tennessee, offensively, is dynamic. They’ve got good players and they’ve got good speed.”
And while Koenning has suggested that Kilgore is probably as good of a quarterback as UNC will face in 2013, the ground game is equally as effective. Jordan Parker was responsible for 156 of MTSU’s 270 rushing yards against the Catamounts.
“They’ll get you going east and west and then run it right down the middle on you,” Koenning said.
A victory would mark UNC’s third straight in home openers and would improve the program’s home record to 7-1 under Fedora.