Ramses will have to watch the Tar Heels on TV this weekend, when they travel to Wake Forest. PHOTO: Robert Willett
UNC at Wake Forest
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: BB&T Field, Winston-Salem
TV/radio: Fox Sports South/WRDU-106.1
Quick slant: After starting the season last week against FCS opponents, North Carolina and Wake Forest today open their conference schedule against each other. UNC has won just one conference opener since the start of the 2001 season, and that lone victory came last season against Virginia. The Tar Heels haven’t played at Wake Forest since 2007.
What you need to know about Wake Forest (1-0, 0-0 ACC): The Deacons scraped by in an unimpressive 20-17 victory against Liberty last weekend but, hey, a win’s a win, right? At least that’s what coach Jim Grobe said. Wake returned a 3,000-yard passer from a season ago, Tanner Price, and the defense is experienced, with seven starters back from last season. But the offensive line is still a work in progress, with four new starters. Starting running back Josh Harris suffered a concussion in the first quarter last week, and it remains to be seen how he recovers from that. Under Grobe, Wake is 12-2 at home against in-state ACC competition (Duke, UNC and N.C. State).
What you need to know about UNC (1-0, 0-0 ACC): The Tar Heels looked good in that 62-0 victory against Elon last week. Actually, they looked great. The execution was nearly flawless on both offense and defense, and UNC committed just three penalties. Sophomore running back Giovani Bernard amassed 203 all-purpose yards and scored in three different ways (on a 59-yard run, on a 6-yard reception and on a 70-yard punt return). Defensively, UNC shut out a team for the first time since 1999. But the Wake game will represent a far more difficult test to a team that wasn’t tested in week 1. And there are concerns about Bernard’s health after he left the game last week in the first half.
What to watch:
1. How will UNC’s offense fare against Wake’s experienced, veteran defense? The Heels had little trouble against Elon, but the Deacs, who run a 3-4 defense, should be far more challenging. Nikita Whitlock, the Wake Forest nose guard, is a disruptive force up front.
2. How’s Gio? Bernard said all the right things earlier this week about his playing status, and UNC coach Larry Fedora gave no indication on Wednesday that he was worried about Bernard’s status for Saturday. Even so, until he’s on the field and playing well, UNC fans will be nervous. And rightfully so.
3. Can UNC’s defensive front take advantage against Wake’s inexperienced line? This is the one area where the Tar Heels might have their greatest advantage. Expect the Heels to try to bring a lot of pressure against Price, who threw three interceptions against UNC in a loss last season.
Key player from the opposition: NG, Nikita Whitlock. An All-ACC second-team selection a season ago, Whitlock, a junior, became the first Wake Forest player since 2008 to earn preseason all-conference honors. He finished last season with 64 tackles, including 14 for loss.
The 5-foot-11, 260-pound Whitlock will represent a significant challenge for the North Carolina offensive line, which was untested in that dominant 62-0 victory against Elon last week. Whitlock finished fifth in the ACC last season in tackles for loss, and he has a knack for finding his way into the offensive backfield.
The good news for UNC is that the Tar Heels have an experienced, talented offensive line that is among the best – if not the best – in the ACC. Today in Winston-Salem, that line faces its first real test.
Key matchup: UNC’s passing game, including QB Bryn Renner and WR Erik Highsmith, vs. the Demon Deacons’ secondary, including SS A.J. Marshall
Despite the return of Price, Wake’s offense lacks firepower and it struggled to generate scoring chances in the Demon Deacons’ surprisingly-close 20-17 victory against Liberty last week. So the competitiveness of this game will likely depend on how well Wake Forest defends UNC’s passing game.
Renner looked sharp and threw for three touchdown passes last week against Elon, and 14 players caught passes for the Tar Heels. Wake’s defense, meanwhile, returns seven starters from a season ago. Marshall, the Deacs’ safety, played a major role in the victory last week. His interception return for a touchdown helped Wake overcome its second-half deficit.
Key mismatch: UNC’s defensive line, including DT Sylvester Williams, vs. Wake’s offensive line
The offensive line represented the Demon Deacons’ most troubling concern entering the season. They had to replace four starters, and though they returned several players who had been in the program for years, many of them were inexperienced.
Against Liberty last week, Wake’s offensive line helped generate just 98 rushing yards – the fourth-fewest in the nation for a team playing against an FCS opponent. UNC’s defensive line, meanwhile, performed well in the first game of its new 4-2-5 scheme. Williams finished with two sacks and tipped a pass that led to an interception.
Key number: 80 – that’s how many offensive plays Fedora would like to run, at least, in a given game. The Tar Heels ran 74 last week against Elon, and if they approach 80 today, that will likely mean that UNC is controlling the game offensively. Wake Forest’s best hope is to force three-and-outs and keep UNC’s offense off the field.
Pulse check: This is the conference opener for both teams, and the stakes are higher than they were a week ago, when both Wake Forest and UNC began the season against FCS opponents. The Demon Deacons received a scare last week, while the Tar Heels weren’t tested. They should be today, though. UNC and Wake have split the last 10 games in the series, dating to 1998.
Tweet of week: “Dang I'm ready for the next game already.” –UNC WR Quinshad Davis (@quinshad_davis)
Loosely-related-to-the-game pregame haiku:
West past Red Oak Brewery
Larry Magic Hat?
Prediction: UNC 30, Wake Forest 23
See you Saturday.