Expect Bryn Renner and the North Carolina offense to get back on track on Saturday against Middle Tennessee State. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina hosts Middle Tennessee State on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
So let’s get to it …
North Carolina vs. Middle Tennessee State
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m., Kenan Stadium
TV/Radio: ACC Network/WTKK 106.1-FM
PPG (UNC/MTSU) : 10/45
Allowed (UNC/MTSU) : 27/25
ABOUT MIDDLE TENNESSEE
The Blue Raiders won’t be intimidated about playing an ACC team on the road. Middle Tennessee traveled to Atlanta last fall and left with a 49-28 victory against Georgia Tech, and the Blue Raiders also beat Maryland in 2008 and ’09. So there is a history here of beating ACC teams. To make it happen again, the Blue Raiders are likely going to have to open up their playbook and take some chances down the field. Logan Kilgore is an experienced quarterback, and the Blue Raiders run an up-tempo no-huddle. But at times it can be surprisingly vanilla and conservative. Defensively, Middle Tennessee was a mess last season. It allowed 6.1 yards per play and gave up at least 425 yards in nine of its 12 games. The Blue Raiders on Saturday are likely to be without DT Jimmy Staten, one of their most experienced players, and they have two new starters in the secondary. This isn’t a good defense.
ABOUT NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels played one of the best defenses in the country in their season-opener, and it showed. South Carolina shut down UNC on offense, and UNC set lows under coach Larry Fedora in points, total yards and yards per play. The struggles weren’t all that unexpected, given the Gamecocks strength, size and speed on defense. Expect things to get back to normal for UNC’s offense on Saturday. The Tar Heels took few chances down field against South Carolina, and that was by design. The goal there was for UNC to get the ball out of Bryn Renner’s hands as quickly as possible. The Tar Heels will go back to a more vertical passing game against Middle Tennessee. Defensively, it’s all about eliminating big plays. That has been a focal point all week for Fedora and his staff. South Carolina gained 140 yards on two long touchdown plays against UNC but, outside of those, the Tar Heels defense played relatively well.
3 AND OUT
KEEP AN EYE ON: Middle Tennessee quarterback Logan Kilgore suffered an injury to his shoulder injury during the Blue Raiders’ victory against Western Carolina last week, but coach Rick Stockstill told reporters earlier this week that there’s “no question” that Kilgore will play against UNC.
Kilgore will be among the most experienced quarterbacks the Tar Heels face this season. He is a four-year starter, and one of seven quarterbacks in the country who started an opening game for the fourth consecutive season.
The Blue Raiders would like to take more downfield chances in the passing game and some those opportunities could present themselves against UNC, which has been susceptible to allowing big plays.
MAGIC NUMBER: 410. The Tar Heels generated at least 410 yards of offense in every game last season, but they gained just 293 yards in their season-opening defeat against South Carolina. The Gamecocks defense should end up among the best in the nation, so it wasn’t too surprising that UNC struggled.
If the Tar Heels labor to gain yards this week, though, it could be cause for concern. Defense isn’t Middle Tennessee’s strength, and so UNC should have few problems getting its offense going. Look for the Tar Heels to open up their playbook more than they did against the Gamecocks, and for UNC to take more risks.
WHY UNC IS THE FAVORITE: Middle Tennessee is no stranger to up-tempo offenses, so UNC’s fast pace won’t bother the Blue Raiders. Even so, this isn’t a great matchup for Middle Tennessee, which ranked 92nd in total defense a season ago. The Blue Raiders are expected to be without Staten, one of the team’s most experienced players, and there are two-first year starters in the secondary.
UNC should be able to exploit Middle Tennessee’s weaknesses on defense. The Blue Raiders are capable of producing on offense, but they were inconsistent last season. Middle Tennessee beat Georgia Tech last season in Atlanta, but some key members of that team are no longer around. A similar upset in Chapel Hill isn’t likely.
THREE KEYS FOR UNC
--Erode Middle Tennessee’s confidence early on with some game-changing plays on offense. After slogging through the opener, UNC quarterback Bryn Renner and the rest of the offense has to be looking forward to opening up the playbook more. A long scoring play or two early on could set the tone for a lopsided victory.
--Keep Jordan Parker in check. Parker is Middle Tennessee’s sophomore running back. He gained 156 yards last week against Western Carolina, and he ran for at least 141 yards in the Blue Raiders’ first three games of last November. When Parker is successful, Middle Tennessee is capable of executing some long scoring drives.
--Focus on the details. Small errors had big consequences in UNC’s loss at South Carolina. T.J. Thorpe lost concentration briefly, and it led to a muffed punt. A defender missed a tackle, and it led to a 75-yard touchdown run. UNC will make mistakes. But can it overcome those and not allow them to turn into game-changers?
What’s a Blue Raider?
Better than the old mascot
Nate Bedford Forrest
AND A PREDICTION
UNC 48, Middle Tennessee 24: The Tar Heels get back on track this week, and their offense releases some of the pent-up frustration they’ve been carrying since that loss against South Carolina. Middle Tennessee has the potential to make it interesting, but this is a bad matchup for the Blue Raiders because of their problems on defense.