Not many people thought North Carolina would start this season 2-0.
After a 2-9 season in 2018, the firing of coach Larry Fedora and the hiring of Mack Brown, the expectations were that this season would be a process. In the preseason, the Tar Heels were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the ACC Coastal Division.
But after wins over South Carolina and Miami to start the season, the Tar Heels could be on to better days.
UNC (2-0, 1-0) plays Wake Forest (2-0) on the road in a rare nonconference game on Friday. The Demon Deacons, picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the ACC Atlantic Division, are turning heads, too, after wins over Utah State and Rice to open the season.
The Tar Heels, behind a stout defense and the play of true freshman quarterback Sam Howell, have engineered two fourth-quarter comebacks in as many games. On Aug. 31, UNC overcame an 11-point deficit to beat South Carolina 24-20. And on Sept. 7 against Miami, the Tar Heels trailed 25-20 with five minutes left before coming back to win 28-25.
Howell, who passed for 274 yards and two touchdowns against the Hurricanes, won ACC Rookie and Player of the Week honors.
Wake Forest, under sixth-year head coach Dave Clawson, is a good program, too. The Demon Deacons engineered a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Utah State 38-35 in a wild finish on Aug. 30. Then they beat Rice 41-21 on Sept. 6.
Vegas had the Demon Deacons as three-point favorites against the Tar Heels as of early Thursday afternoon.
Beating Wake Forest likely won’t be easy. But if the Tar Heels can win on Friday, it gives them a better shot to make it to its first bowl game in three years.
Here are five things UNC can do to beat Wake Forest:
1. Establish the run game early
UNC’s running game helped Howell get into a rhythm against South Carolina on Aug. 31. The Tar Heels rushed for 238 yards, and when the Gamecocks began to load the box to stop the run, Howell threw it over their heads.
But against Miami, the Tar Heels’ running game struggled. They ran for -11 yards in the second and third quarters, and had 26 rushing yards through the first three quarters. As a result, its offense grew stagnant and UNC managed only three points during the middle two quarters.
The Tar Heels rushed for 71 yards in the fourth quarter and finally found their rhythm. If the Tar Heels running game can get going against Wake Forest, it will open up things for Howell and give him a better chance to get receivers in one-on-one matchups.
“There were runs that made a difference in this ball game,” Brown said about the Miami game in a press conference on Monday. “So it really did help us. But we’ve got to improve our red zone offense too.”
Opponents average 123.5 rushing yards per game against the Demon Deacons, which is ranked 56th in the country. They allow 335 yards in the air, which is 123rd out of 130 teams in the FBS.
The Tar Heels will have their opportunity in the air with Howell, and an efficient running game will make that easier.
2. Get pressure on the quarterback
The Demon Deacons’ strength is their offense. Wide receivers Scotty Washington, who is 6-5, 225 pounds, and Sage Surratt, who is 6-3, 21, are no joke. Wake likes to throw the fade route, and Washington and Surratt regularly catch balls over shorter defenders.
And without 6-2, 208-pound senior cornerback Patrice Rene, who suffered a torn ACL last week, the Tar Heels will have their hands full.
Washington leads the Demon Deacons with 204 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Surratt is second with 203 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
To replace Rene, the Tar Heels have elevated Trey Morrison, who is 5-10, 180 pounds, and Greg Ross, who is 6-foot, 188 pounds, as the top two cornerbacks. UNC freshman Storm Duck, who is 6-1, 200 pounds, will be the third cornerback.
The Tar Heels’ defensive line can give Morrison, Ross and Duck some help by getting pressure on Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman.
Newman, a 6-4, 230-pound junior, has shown he can make throws. He passed for 713 yards and six passing touchdowns in the first two games. He also has a rushing touchdown.
But he has been sacked three times, and has two fumbles, including one he lost, this season.
UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman was confident in his cornerbacks earlier this week.
“I don’t think we have a bunch of real little guys,” Bateman said in a press conference on Monday. “I think they’re used to playing bigger guys, so they’ll be OK.”
3. Better distance on punts
Against Miami, UNC freshman Ben Kiernan punted four times and averaged 27.5 yards per punt. One landed inside the 20. And the Tar Heels prevented the Hurricanes from returning punts.
However, the Hurricanes started many of their drives with good field position, and on some occasions were able to turn them into points.
Wake Forest will take advantage of that. The Demon Deacons average 546 yards per game, which is 12th in the country. Making the Demon Deacons start further in their own territory, and take longer drives can only help the Tar Heels.
“Our punts were inconsistent but our punt coverage was good,” Brown said Monday. “We feel that’s an area we can continue to improve, but we made great progress.”
4. Win the turnover battle
Taking care of the football has been the difference in two close games for the Tar Heels.
UNC won its first two games by a combined seven points. Against South Carolina, UNC had one turnover, and forced two. And against Miami, UNC did not turn the ball over, but also did not create a turnover.
Therefore, the Tar Heels’ new turnover belt did not make an appearance.
Wake Forest forced four turnovers in its first two games, and turned the ball over only once. The Demon Deacons have the 12th best turnover margin in the country, and is tied for second in the ACC.
“The thing that they do such a good job of, in my estimation, is play clean so they don’t turn the ball over and they do not have penalties,” Brown said Monday.
Turnovers can be the difference in close games, like this one is expected to be.
5. Keep penalties at a minimum
Penalties were a problem in UNC’s season-opener against South Carolina. The Tar Heels committed 10 penalties for 90 yards. They were fortunate South Carolina committed nearly as many.
But the Tar Heels were much improved against Miami. They had only one penalty for five yards, which prevented them from getting in bad situations. Minimizing penalties had been a focus for the Tar Heels all offseason.
UNC averaged 55.6 penalty yards per game in 2018.
Brown said the team has ACC officials who call penalties at every practice.
“We cannot have penalties,” Brown said Monday. “I repeated it to the coaches, so many times you’re allowing it to happen, or you’re coaching it not to happen. And the things that happen in practice are the things that happen in the game.
UNC at Wake Forest
When: 6 p.m., Friday
Where: BB&T Field, Winston-Salem
Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte