North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner and the Tar Heels' offense struggled against South Carolina's defense. How will UNC fare against the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State? ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina plays Middle Tennessee State on Saturday. I know a little bit about the Blue Raiders. But Adam Sparks knows a lot about the Blue Raiders – and probably knows more than just about anybody.
I’m pleased to be joined by Adam this week in our ongoing series of “ask an opposing team’s beat writer.”
So let’s get to it:
Andrew Carter: Buster Faulkner took over as the Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator last year and part of his Twitter bio reads, “Run, gun and lots of fun.” Does that adequately describe his offensive approach? Middle Tennessee had some good offensive games last year, but some duds, too. What can UNC fans expect to see out of the Blue Raiders offense and four-year starting quarterback Logan Kilgore?
Adam Sparks: Faulkner is like many OCs these days. Wants to spread it out, go no-huddle, up-tempo, etc., similar to Fedora's scheme there. They simply ran out of personnel last year due to injuries. Lost some WRs, lost their stud running back (Benny Cunningham, now with the Rams). Some of the key pieces that were there for the upset of Georgia Tech were out for the year soon after that game. And MTSU figured out its best chance to win in the second half of the season was to run the ball well and limit turnovers. They uglied it up a little for their own good. But yes, they want to go fast. A couple of additions this year is that Faulkner really really wants to throw it deep more (but I'd be surprised to see that much in this game) and toss a few more to the tight end. I expect to see the latter on Saturday some.
AC: Obviously, the Tar Heels are an up-tempo team on offense – one that’s always trying to push the pace. How is the Middle Tennessee defense preparing for that challenge? And how have the Blue Raiders fared recently against some of the more up-tempo teams they’ve played?
AS: It's the norm for MTSU. In the Sun Belt, almost every team was spread, and most were up-tempo. And every day in practice, these players face a pretty good up-tempo offense on their own team. As you know, mid-major teams were the first to use tempo offenses as equalizers (see Larry Fedora, circa 1999-2001), and those offenses have remained very, very popular in the mid-major conferences for good reason. So the pace should feel fairly normal to most MTSU players. I think there could be some depth issues, though. MTSU is thin at defensive tackle and linebacker, and some of the DBs are inexperienced.
AC: The Tar Heels’ defense again allowed some big plays in the season-opening loss against South Carolina. Allowing big plays has remained an issue for UNC. Middle Tennessee ranked in the bottom half nationally last season when it came to generating long plays from scrimmage, but how do you think the Blue Raiders might try to take advantage of UNC’s tendency to allow those long plays?
AS: As I said before, MTSU really wants to add a deep-ball element to its game. It makes sense. Kilgore has a lively arm, and he throws a nice deep ball. But the past two seasons, MTSU has taken few chances. If there's one overriding criticism of MTSU's offense, it's that it settles for the dink-and-dunk stuff (head coach Rick Stockstill would rather cut off his arm than turn the ball over). MTSU has added some possible deep threats to the receiving corps - especially junior college transfers Chris Perkins and Devin Clarke. They tried to go deep a couple times in game one, but that was against Western Carolina. In this one, I'll believe it when I see it.
AC: Middle Tennessee DT Jimmy Staten is one of the most experienced players on the team, and he’s doubtful for this game with a knee injury. How big of a blow is that to the Blue Raiders’ defensive front?
AS: It's an issue from a depth standpoint. Staten is a solid, experienced player. He's not a wow type defensive tackle, but he plays the run well. In his absence, true freshman Jimal McBride is the starter. Coaches are very excited about McBride, so it might not be too much of a drop-off from one to the next. But once the game gets into the second half (especially against UNC's offense), fatigue could be a problem. Right now, the 4-man DT rotation includes one true freshman and two redshirt freshmen. And defensive line was already a point of concern in the preseason.
AC: Middle Tennessee beat Georgia Tech in decisive fashion last year – a troubling fact for UNC fans given the Tar Heels later suffered an 18-point loss against the Yellow Jackets. How much of a confidence booster was that for Middle Tennessee, and how much do you think they’ll try to draw on that experience in Chapel Hill?
AS: It's hard to say year to year how different players respond, but none of Rick Stockstill's teams have ever really seemed intimidated by an ACC opponent. (Stockstill spent much of his career at Clemson). MTSU is 3-3 in its past six games versus the ACC (two wins over Maryland), and before that Virginia had to make a FG to beat the Blue Raiders. MTSU's players seem to take notice of SEC road trips more than ACC or Big Ten, etc. In the Georgia Tech game, MTSU scored early, forced turnovers and ran the ball very well. If it does all three of those, it could hang around on Saturday. But turnovers are obviously the biggest thing. MTSU's offense can score some points. But I'm not sure if MTSU's defense can slow down UNC enough to keep pace.
So there you have it. Thanks to Adam for his time.