Coming off a phenomenal 2015 that saw them win the Coastal and come within an onside kick of a potential playoff birth, the North Carolina Tar Heels followed up with a fairly disappointing 2016, going 8-5 and falling to Stanford in their bowl game.
Now, at 1-7, the bottom has completely dropped out for the Heels in 2017. UNC has lost most of their core contributors from those great teams of years past, but have also mightily struggled with the injury bug. 16 (!) Tar Heels are out for the season, seven of them starters. 5 additional players will also sit out this week against the Hurricanes, including starting safety Donnie Miles and top rusher Michael Carter.
"It's been tough since day one," UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. "It's unfortunate. It is what it is - the next guy has to play. You hope you can build some type of continuity at some point."
With the injuries in mind, plus knowing UNC is coming off 5 consecutive losses, including a 59-7 pounding against Virginia Tech last week, one would think it would be pretty easy to overlook North Carolina on Saturday. Mark Richt insists that won’t be the case, though.
"If we were rolling everybody, whipping everybody by three touchdowns, no drama, getting your second- and third-stringers in -- well, we get our second- and third-stringers in anyway -- but if we were having that kind of a roll, maybe," Richt said. "We're just finding ways to win at the end of games. We're not foolish enough to think that we've arrived yet. I don't think they believe that. They know we have to earn it."
The Tar Heels problems start, but don’t end, on offense. They are the 113th offense in the country when it comes to yards per game. At quarterback...well, let’s just say Mitchell Trubisky is not walking through that door. The Tar Heels’ quarterback play has been mediocre at best, and abysmal at worst in trying to replace their star QB. UNC has gone with a two QB system for most of the year, but neither Chazz Surratt nor Brandon Harris has been able to have any notable sustained success.
Surratt has been the better of the two, with a 127.5 passer rating and a 7-3 TD-INT Ratio. That’s not saying much because Harris, who is the superior runner, has been an absolute liability in the passing game. Harris has an ugly 72.3 passer rating with a 1-8 TD-INT Ratio.
The UNC offense has some weapons, though. With Carter out, more of the running game responsibilities will fall on sophomore RB Jordon Brown. Brown is just behind Carter for the team lead in rushing yards and averages 4.4 yards per carry, but has added an element to the passing game as well with 20 catches this season. Receiver Anthony-Ratliff Williams is a converted quarterback that has been explosive this season, leading the Tar Heels in receiving yards and averaging 17.3 yards per catch, while South Florida-product Jordan Cunningham leads all UNC WR’s with 19 receptions.
On the other side of the coin to all of the Tar Heels’ injury woes, UM is slowly starting to get healthy after a rash of injuries hit versus FSU a few weeks back. Only Dee Delaney (probable) is listed on this week’s injury report for UNC, while players previously listed, such as Ahmmon Richards (hamstring), Navaughn Donaldson (ankle), and Sheldrick Redwine (concussion), are nowhere to be found.
The Canes have also moved the ball on offense very well overall, checking in at #21 in the nation with 474 yards per game. Led by Malik Rosier, Miami will look to stress an underwhelming UNC stop-unit ranked 109 out of 129 FBS programs in total defense. Rosier will often look to top target Richards, who recorded 6 catches for 99 yards in his return from injury versus Syracuse last week. However, Richards showed a little rust in dropping 4 balls, and hopes to have better focus in his second game back.
“That’s on me, I never had a game like that in my life,” Richards said. “I don’t want to have that feeling again. It’s a focus thing, when you’re tired you let your hands down - it’s more staying focused when you’re tired. I just look at the drops - I have to get better... That was a learning lesson, that’s how I’m taking it. Just stay focused at all times, you have to get better each week.”
When UNC takes to the air, Miami will call on an improving secondary that brought out the Turnover Chain four times last week versus Syracuse. UM’s steadying presence in the back end? That’d be junior safety Jaquan Johnson, who has been rock solid in both pass coverage and run support, and leads the team in tackles with 40 while nabbing a diving interception against Syracuse.
"Jaquan has been unbelievable the last three games and a guy that absolutely does not get the credit that he deserves," Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "The number one thing a safety has to be, they have to be the eraser. Any time we create a problem, he has to bring his big jar of white out and he has to erase it and that's what he's done up to this point.”
One more reason to believe Miami isn’t looking past the Tar Heels: the Hurricanes are out for a bit of revenge this weekend. The all-time series between the ACC Coastal rivals is 11-9 in favor of UNC, including a 59-21 blowout win for the Tar Heels in 2015 and a 20-13 victory last season.
"They disrespected us last year when they beat us," UM junior defensive end Demetrius Jackson said. "We know what it is. They beat us last year, and they beat us the year before, so we've just got to go out there and do what we need to do."