UNC’s second-ever ESPN Thursday night home game has been nearly a year in the making. After originally scheduling a home contest against Old Dominion on Oct. 12, UNC officials, including athletic director Bubba Cunningham and head coach Larry Fedora, decided to move ahead with their plan to host a second Thursday night game at Kenan Stadium.
The Old Dominion game was moved to Nov. 23, which freed up Oct. 12 as UNC installed Carol Folt as its new chancellor on University Day. Next came a series of campus meetings with faculty and staff to alleviate concerns and receive suggestions.
Once the ACC announced the Thursday night game in late February, Fedora set about branding the event as Zero Dark Thursday, complete with a “Black Out” label that includes black uniforms.
With UNC coming off an 8-4 season in 2012, the expectation by many was that this Miami game would go a long way in determining the Coastal Division champion. While the Hurricanes (5-0, 1-0 ACC) have held up their end of the bargain, UNC has faltered to a 1-4 (0-2 ACC) start due to a sputtering offense and a defense prone to mistakes.
The team’s weekly approach hasn’t changed, in terms of expectations. The only game that matters is the next one.
“The goal is to be 1-0,” Fedora told reporters on Tuesday. “There’s really nothing else going on, so why focus on the rest of it? Why think about the rest of it? Everybody else does, but you can’t do it as a football team. You’ve got to focus on the task at hand, which is Miami on Thursday night. That’s all we’ve got and there’s nothing else to it.”
UNC has had success against Miami recently, winning four of the last six meetings, including an 18-14 victory in Miami Gardens last October. In 2004, the Tar Heels upset the fourth-ranked Hurricanes, 31-28, on a Connor Barth 42-yard field goal in arguably the most memorable Kenan Stadium night game in school history.
Al Golden’s current squad may well represent Miami’s best team since that 2004 season.
“They’re an extremely confident football team,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. “They’ve got NFL players everywhere.”
Miami, an 8.5-point favorite over UNC, ranks 21st nationally in total offense (488.6 ypg) behind a balanced attack that features quarterback Stephen Morris (58-of-94 passing, 950 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) and running back Duke Johnson (572 rushing yards).
“They’re still living off the big play throwing the ball down the field and they’re running the ball extremely well,” Fedora said. “I think the offensive line has improved tremendously. I think that’s the most improved unit on their offense.”
While North Carolina’s defense has played with solid effort in four of its five games, talent and execution issues have the Tar Heels looking up at the nation from the near bottom of several statistical categories. UNC ranks 94th in total defense (436.0 ypg) and 95th in scoring defense (31.4 ppg).
The Tar Heel defense hasn’t had the luxury of relying on Gio Bernard and a NFL offensive line to bail it out this season as it did in 2012. Instead, UNC’s offense is the defense’s statistical equivalent, ranking 76th in total offense (392.8 ypg) and 93rd in scoring offense (23.6 ppg).
Quarterback Bryn Renner (91-of-152 passing, 1,117 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) will return to UNC’s lineup after missing the Virginia Tech loss due to a left foot injury. What awaits is a Miami defense that ranks 13th or better in seven statistical categories, including ninth in scoring defense (16.0 ppg).
While offensive coordinator Blake Anderson expressed optimism earlier this week that his offense would finally click before long, Fedora stressed that the strides made in practice have to carry over to the game.
“You have to overcome the mistakes you make,” Fedora said. “You’re going to make some mistakes. That’s going to happen and you’ve got to overcome them. We’ve got to limit the mistakes and we’ve got to overcome the ones that we do make.”
In order for UNC to pull a second upset over a top-10 ranked Miami squad in 10 years, turnovers will have to break in the home team’s favor. Miami boasts a plus-1.2 turnover margin (T-14th) on the season, while UNC owns a minus-0.6 mark (102nd).
“In this game, it’s going to be huge to hold onto the ball,” Golden said. “If you can’t convert on third down, or you turn the ball over, it’s going to be a track meet for them on offense. We have to be really cognizant of that in all three phases. We have to protect the ball and have to do a better job with penalties."
North Carolina is 6-5 all-time in Thursday night ESPN contests.