Some people laughed when Mack Brown was announced as North Carolina’s head coach last offseason. Having made a name for himself in the ESPN/ABC studio and broadcast booth, it seemed as though he was one of those coaches who had settled into the coaching version of retirement.
No one’s laughing now.
Brown made an instant impact last year, beating South Carolina in Charlotte in their season opener. While it was considered an upset at that time, UNC finished with the better record when all was said and done. The following week, we all know what happened. Freshman QB Sam Howell led UNC to an early first half lead, and later converted a 4th and 17 late in the game on the way to the winning points in a 28-25 win. It was one of the more disgusting games of the Miami season in a slate chock full of them.
UNC would prove to be an enigmatic team for much of the rest of the season. They dropped a stinker at home to App State 34-31 the week before taking #1 Clemson down to a potentially game-winning 2-point conversion in a 21-20 loss. They dropped two overtime games on the road to Virginia Tech and Pitt, along with a close loss at Wake Forest. In short, this is a team that was a play or two away from 9 or 10 wins. Instead, they went 7-6, waxing Temple 55-13 in the Military Bowl. With a young and talented QB in Howell and a strong 2021 recruiting class in the making, the Tar Heels are trending sharply up as we enter the 2020 season.
UNC leads the all-time series 12-11. No team has won more than 3 straight games in this series, with UNC winning the first three in 1946, 1952, and 1957 and Miami winning the next three in 1959, 1960, and 1961. Since Miami started ACC play in 2004, they are 8-8 against the Tar Heels.
Along the same vein as the previous game against Florida (fumbled punt, missed field goal, etc.), self-inflicted wounds and a lack of focus helped turn a game that should have been won into a second straight gut-wrenching loss. A long bomb for a touchdown, a missed block that led to a sack, and a host of missed tackles on a short touchdown run led to a 17-3 UNC lead in the first half. The Canes answered right before the half with a touchdown drive led by the physical running of Cam Harris.
Down 20-13, a long pass to Mike Harley, Jr. helped set up a touchdown run by Harris. But then Bubba Baxa’s extra point was blocked by a defender who got almost a clean run through the middle, so Miami still trailed 20-19. That failed extra point proved ruinous.
After Will Mallory caught the go ahead touchdown 25-20 in the game’s final minutes, Miami could not convert the two-point conversion. Because of the blocked kick and failed two point try, instead of leading by a full touchdown, Miami fans were forced to sweat out the last drive knowing that a UNC touchdown would likely beat the Canes.
And that’s just what happened. Facing 4th and 17 after a sack, Howell completed a deep out between two Canes defenders. And we all know what happened next. UNC drove down for a 28-25 lead, Miami drove back in range to try a 50-yard field goal, which Baxa of course missed. Two games into the season, two come-from-ahead fourth quarter heartbreaking losses.
Where UNC really scares you is their offense, specifically their passing game. Howell returns and, as a sophomore, will only continue to improve and develop. He set a school record with 38 touchdowns last year. All of his primary weapons return in the passing game, with 1000-yard receivers Dazz Newsome and Dynami Brown both returning. Running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams both return as well, who combined for 1936 rushing yards and averaged 5.7 and 5.6 yards per carry, respectively. Their offensive line loses All-ACC left tackle Charlie Heck, but the rest of the unit returns. Bottom line, this will be one of the best offenses UM faces this season.
Defensively, UNC lost two starters on their defensive line to the NFL in Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, and will be looking to a number of unproven players to try to fill their shoes. However, behind them are two experienced inside linebackers in Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel, who started every game for UNC last year. Their secondary will feature two experienced transfer options in Kyler McMichael and Bryce Watt, who will battle it out with Storm Duck (9 starts last year, and the best name in football?) and Trey Morrison for the starting corner spots.
UNC offense vs. Miami defense
You don’t have to be a football genius to know that pressure is a secondary’s best friend, and that’s what Miami will undoubtedly have to rely upon to help slow down Howell and the UNC passing attack. Gregory Rousseau and Quincy Roche will be paramount in getting Howell off his spot and getting him uncomfortable. Brown beat Trajan Bandy with a stutter step last year (and an NFL throw from Howell), and will be back as mentioned with most of UNC’s skill position players. Miami cannot afford to give up the big play like they did last year. They have to be able to keep everything in front of them, giving Roche, Rousseau, Nesta Silvera, and the rest of the defense a chance to generate a tackle for loss, set up long down and distance situations, or otherwise force a mistake. With Miami’s relative inexperience at linebacker, this game will really come down to how well Miami can generate pressure with its front four even more than usual. Fortunately, the Canes are well suited to do that, as the Heels will have their hands full trying to decide who to single team among those three (plus Jaelan Phillips and others).
UNC defense vs. Miami offense
At this point, we don’t know what to expect from what Rhett Lashlee’s offense, and exactly how D’Eriq King will operate. However, UM has the best NFL prospect on either sideline in Brevin Jordan, who caught 6 passes for 73 yards against the Heels last year. UNC also had a hard time stopping Miami’s primary ball carriers, as DeeJay Dallas and Harris ran for 167 yards on only 24 carries, good for around 7 yards a carry. Having an anchor of a run blocker at right tackle in Jarrid Williams will only help the running game, as well. UNC will also have to account for King’s unique dual threat ability. In other words, Miami’s offense suddenly looks more dynamic than it did last year.
Keep in mind that this is a game last year that Miami should have won. Miami rolled up 488 yards of offense to UNC’s 389. Miami had troubles in the red zone, but not really that much trouble moving the ball. If King can step into Shane Buechele’s role at SMU in Rhett Lashlee’s offense last year even somewhat, Miami’s offense is in position to be balanced, physical, and dynamic. Given UNC’s relative inexperience on the defensive line, I can see this being a game where Miami controls the game at times on the ground, which is helpful to keep Howell and company off the field.
This game really could be a coin flip, but if you put a gun to my head, I this time it comes up heads for UM. Miami has little problem moving the ball, with Harley, Jordan, and Dee Wiggins taking advantage of a defense focused on keeping King from getting free for big gains. UNC hits on their share of big plays, with the big UNC receivers making plays down the field and the young Miami linebackers struggling at times to contain UNC’s dangerous thunder/lightning combo of Williams/Carter.
The difference this year is Jose Borregales will be kicking the ball. Baxa missed chip shots. Borregales wont.
Miami 30, UNC 28