UNC coach Mack Brown talks about relationship with UM coach Manny Diaz
Emotions were high last Saturday after North Carolina’s surprising 24-20 victory over South Carolina. The win was a long time coming for the Tar Heels, which had struggled to win big games in recent years.
But by the time Monday rolled around at Kenan Stadium, the tears had dried, the victory meals had been eaten, and the celebrations were over. The Tar Heels (1-0) will face Miami (0-1) on Saturday night in their home-opener, with hopes of showing the win over the Gamecocks was not a fluke.
Despite their 24-20 loss to then-No. 8 Florida on Aug. 24, the Hurricanes have talent. Last season, they were ranked No. 4 in the country in total defense or yards allowed per game, and 16th in the country with 25 forced turnovers. Against Florida, the Hurricanes’ defense intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles.
“I think Miami will be as talented as anybody we play other than Clemson,” UNC coach Mack Brown told the media Wednesday after practice. “And in some positions, they are as talented as Clemson.
“So this is real test for us at home to see if we have a real chance here, or to see if we’re still growing.”
Brown particularly pointed to Miami’s linebackers. Linebackers Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinkney are back on defense for the Hurricanes after earning All-ACC honors in 2018.
“They are the kingpins of that team, I think, but specifically that defense,” Brown said.
The Hurricanes, under new coach, Manny Diaz, were picked to finish second in the ACC Coastal Division.
True freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who completed 15 of 24 pass attempts for 245 yards and two touchdowns last week, will have a tough task ahead.
The Tar Heels lost to the Hurricanes last season 47-10 at Miami, turning the ball over six times. While the Tar Heels beat South Carolina this past Saturday, there were a number of mistakes they made that won’t fly against the Hurricanes.
Here are five things the Tar Heels worked on this week to help them beat the Hurricanes:
1. Limit Sam Howell’s hits
Howell took way too many hits against the Gamecocks, and many of the hits were his fault. There were times when he rushed and failed to slide, or held the ball too long in the pocket.
Howell fumbled twice, and lost one late in the third quarter.
“If Sam were on defense, he’d be a middle linebacker,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said in a press conference Monday. “That’s his mentality. He’s physical and he’s used to running people over in high school and he’s used to getting the extra yard and he’s a competitor.
“But there’s health management in the game with the quarterback. You want him to live to play another play.”
Howell admitted Tuesday that he never slid in high school. Against high school opponents he could get away with it. Against the Hurricanes? Yeah, not so much.
Taking less punishment will be crucial for Howell and the Tar Heels. It’s a long season, and if he gets hurt, UNC has only one quality option at quarterback in Jace Ruder, who also has an injury history. Ruder injured his shoulder after one game in 2018.
2. Improve special teams coverage
North Carolina was not good in its kick return, nor its punt return coverage. There were multiple times this past weekend when a South Carolina returner broke free and nearly scored.
The Gamecocks’ junior wide receiver Shi Smith averaged 33.3 yards per kick return, and busted one for 60 yards against the Tar Heels. And senior wide receiver Bryan Edwards had three punt returns for 66 total yards last week. His longest return was a 38-yard return in the fourth quarter, which got the ball to the UNC 38. The Tar Heels were able to keep the Gamecocks out of the end zone, but the returns put them in a tough predicament.
While it’s fair to question UNC’s decision to kneel on fourth down in its own territory with 11 seconds left in the game, it might have been the best decision, given how bad its return coverage was.
Miami has one of the most dangerous returners in the country in Jeff Thomas. The 5-10, 170-pound junior receiver averaged 22.6 yards on nine punt returns last year. He also returned one for a touchdown.
Brown said Wednesday that the staff made a few changes to the special teams coverage by adding more veterans. He said they had to use younger players on special teams last week because of its suspensions and injuries.
“We feel like the special teams will be a whole lot better this week, and they need to be because Miami is so fast,” Brown said.
3. Limit penalties
The Tar Heels had 10 penalties last week for 90 yards. They were even called for a delay of game on the first play of their first drive.
They were fortunate the Gamecocks were just as undisciplined. They had nine penalties for 75 yards.
Brown said he’s never had a team pick up 10 penalties in a game, and he seemed surprised by it. He said every week, they bring ACC officials to their practices to call out the penalties.
Penalties were also an issue in 2018 under former coach Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels averaged six penalties for 55.6 yards per game last season. And limiting those were said to be a focus for 2019.
“Every day we talk about it in the staff meeting,” Brown said Wednesday. “We have the list. We are doing everything we can do.”
The Tar Heels can’t afford to have drives stalled on offense, or extended on defense because of costly penalties.
4. Make tackles
One of UNC’s biggest issues early in last week’s game was missed tackles. Brown said part of that had to do with UNC not tackling much during training camp.
He said his team would get better.
But Miami is a team that can make you miss, especially with its speed.
“They’re skilled everywhere,” UNC safety Myles Wolfolk said in a media availability on Tuesday.
Miami running back Deejay Dallas had 11 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown against Florida on Aug. 24. He also added 37 receiving yards.
Dallas’ longest run against Florida was for 50 yards, and he broke five tackles on that one play, en route to the end zone.
The Tar Heels tackled better in the second half of last week’s game. They allowed 128 yards on 31 carries, with the majority of those yards occurring in the first half.
And their tackling should get better with the addition of senior linebacker Dominique Ross, who is coming off a suspension.
5. Win the turnover battle
Whichever team can pull out its turnover prop the most on Saturday will likely have the advantage. Known for its infamous “turnover chain,” the Hurricanes were able to bring it out four times against Florida by forcing four turnovers.
The turnovers helped keep the Hurricanes in the game.
Howell, the UNC quarterback, must limit his turnovers. At least one of his fumbles against South Carolina was avoidable, and he almost threw an interception. Longo said ball security and getting down would be Howell’s primary focus in practice
As for their defense, the Tar Heels forced two interceptions against South Carolina, and pulled out their new “turnover belt” twice. The interceptions, both by Wolfolk, were a big reason the Tar Heels won.
Both also occurred in the final three minutes when the Gamecocks had a chance to score and take the lead.
When a reporter asked if there would be a battle of dueling belts this weekend, Wolfolk responded, “You’re going to see on Saturday.”
UNC VS. Miami
When: 8 p.m., Saturday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill
Watch: ACC Network
Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte