1. UNC’s Pass Defense vs. South Carolina’s Chris Smelley
North Carolina’s pass defense put on a solid performance last week against Miami fifth-year senior Kyle Wright (17-of-33 for 302 yards and four interceptions). The impact of losing senior starter Kendric Williams in the Virginia Tech game showed itself on Saturday, though, as Wright completed a 97-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Jenkins over the top of red-shirt freshman cornerback Tavorris Jolly.
The Tar Heel secondary has continued to improve, despite Williams’ loss, on the shoulders of red-shirt freshmen Deunta Williams (36 tackles, three int) and Kendric Burney (26 tackles). A better coverage unit has given the defensive line a little more time to pressure opposing quarterbacks – something defensive end Hilee Taylor (27 tackles, six sacks) and defensive tackle Marvin Austin (15 tackles, 2.5 sacks) have used to their advantage.
"They mix their zones and mans up,” head coach Steve Spurrier said. “They blitz a little here and there. Their guys look well coached. We have to be pretty good throwing the ball, which we've not been super."
Spurrier benched senior Blake Mitchell three weeks ago during the Gamecocks’ 28-16 loss against LSU, and red-shirt freshman Chris Smelley (810 yards and six touchdowns and three interceptions on 58-of-107 passing) has started the last two games.
With Smelley’s minimal experience, the Heels will try to force poor decisions by attacking South Carolina’s vulnerable offensive line (2.67 sacks allowed per game is good for 90th nationally).
"We're still believing our offensive line will play better,” Spurrier said. “I don't know who's going to play in there yet. We've tried about everybody we have. We'll try them again. Just because we bench them (doesn't mean) we won't bring them back the next time.”
2. UNC’s Passing Attack vs. South Carolina’s Pass Defense
T.J. Yates stepped out of the shadows on Sept. 1 and garnered national attention with nine touchdowns and 901 yards in his first three outings as a collegian. His triumvirate of receivers – Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster – took advantage of the red-shirt freshman’s hot start, accounting for 674 yards and eight touchdowns during that three-week period.
Things changed quickly, however, as the Tar Heel offense encountered three straight top-25 national defenses in South Florida, Virginia Tech and Miami. During this stretch, Yates has thrown five interceptions with no touchdowns in his stat book.
This weekend provides no reprieve for the young signal-caller and his various offensive weapons, as South Carolina brings the nation’s top-rated pass defense (126.5 yards per game) to Chapel Hill.
“It’s not just one thing that they do – they’ve got great corners that contest every single pass and one of the big problems is that [your] quarterback is rarely throwing the ball from a position of comfort,” offensive coordinator John Shoop said. “I mean these guys up front, it’s like minnows swimming in a bucket sometimes, the way they’re getting to the quarterback.”
Corners Carlos Thomas (five pass breakups) and Captain Munnerlyn (23 tkl, two int) have been strong in man coverage, while Emmanuel Cook (37 tkl, four pbu) and Darian Stewart (30 tkl, one int) have shown a knack for big hits from their safety positions. The Gamecock secondary may have taken a hit during practice this week, however, as Thomas was taken to the hospital after experiencing some numbness in his arms following a hit.
Shoop believes that Yates is learning that he doesn’t have to force things for this Carolina offense to be effective.
“I think T.J. realizes that it’s not so much about him,” Shoop said. “He’s got to just play smart and distribute the ball, and let guys like Brandon, let guys like Brooks Foster [and] let guys like Hakeem Nicks do the bulk of the work.”
3. UNC’s Anthony Elzy vs. South Carolina’s Run Defense
While South Carolina’s pass defense has earned national headlines for its strong play, the same cannot be said of their rushing defense. The Gamecocks are allowing 193.8 yards per game (99th nationally) on the ground, which may help to explain the pass defense’s top national ranking.
Defensive tackle Marque Hall (13 tkl) and Casper Brinkley (24 tkl, 4.5 tackles for loss) will be called on to limit the Tar Heel ground game, led by newcomer Anthony Elzy. The red-shirt freshman has exploded onto the scene with 169 yards and two touchdowns in North Carolina’s last five quarters of play.
Since Elzy’s emergence, the time of possession concerns that plagued the Tar Heels early in the season have subsided over the last two weeks.
“I think the growth of our running game has made a significant difference in that gain,” head coach Butch Davis said.
That number will be especially important this weekend against South Carolina, as giving the defense more breathers is only a part of that equation.
“When you’re playing a team that is coached by Steve Spurrier, the more you can run the ball and the more you can stay out on the field as an offense, the better it is for your team in general,” Shoop said.
In other words, if you give Spurrier enough opportunities, he will find a way to put points on the scoreboard.
4. UNC’s Offensive Line vs. South Carolina’s Eric Norwood
During this brutal stretch of the schedule, North Carolina’s offensive line has faced numerous All-American candidates on the defensive side of the ball – Virginia’s Chris Long, South Florida’s George Selvie, Virginia Tech’s Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi and Miami’s Calais Campbell. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Enter South Carolina defensive end Eric Norwood (35 tkl, 7.5 tfl, three sacks).
"They have a young man on the defensive side of the ball in Norwood that is as good a defensive football player as you'll see," Davis said. "Their linebackers are very good, but, boy, Norwood is a great pass-rusher and comes up with big plays."
The 6-foot, 258-pound sophomore was named the Bronko Nagurski Defensive Player of the Week following South Carolina’s 38-23 victory over No. 8 Kentucky last Thursday – a game in which the opportunistic end returned two fumbles for touchdowns.
The Tar Heel offensive line has struggled in recent weeks, allowing 2.83 sacks per game on the season (96th nationally). Left tackle Kyle Jolly and backup walk-on center Lowell Dyer have been forced to learn against top-notch opponents, but the resurgent ground game helped to level to the playing field last Saturday, as the Hurricanes’ top-ranked ACC defense only managed two sacks.
The running attack’s success will be crucial again this Saturday in preventing Norwood and his teammates from pinning their ears back and coming after Yates.
“One, it does take the pressure off the passing game,” Shoop said. “Two, it really helps the passing game. I think we’ve been, so far this year, a pretty good play-action team and if you can get that conflict of assignment rolling, a great defense like this that really reads their keys and hits their gaps and that’s well-coached, [then] you can perhaps take a great strength of theirs and make it a weakness.”
5. UNC’s Connor Barth & Terrance Brown vs. South Carolina’s Ryan Succop
Barth and Brown have proven to be a formidable duo this season, as Barth has connected on all eight of his field goal attempts and Brown is averaging 43.1 yards per punt (30th nationally). Even more impressive has been the two special teamers’ ability to come through in the clutch. Barth made two field goals and Brown boomed two 50-yard punts to help thwart Miami’s second-half comeback last Saturday.
Their collective contributions will be needed again against South Carolina, as the kicking game determines the hidden yardage that head coaches so often talk about. The Gamecocks will attempt to offset North Carolina’s talented twosome with just one kicker – Ryan Succop.
The junior has connected on seven of his nine field goal attempts, while averaging 41.22 yards per punt. Like his counterparts, Succop also has the knack for stepping up when the pressure is most intense.
With South Carolina backed up on its goal line after an intentional grounding call in the second quarter against Kentucky last Thursday, Succop rolled to his right and nailed a 53-yard punt.
And yes, you read that correctly – he rolled to his right. Succop has added to his bag a rugby-style kick that North Carolina hasn’t seen in a number of years.
“It’s something that we’ve got to take a long look at and try to find out what that’s going to entail,” Davis said. “… We looked at all six games that they played, and how other teams had attempted to try to return the ball against them and how they had tried to put pressure on the kicker.
“One of the things that’s an element with the rugby-style is that it does allow for the fact that once he starts to move, you can actually hit them – he is no longer protected by the rule about roughing the kicker. Once he starts to move, he’s fair game.”