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October 8, 2011North Carolina (4-1 overall, 1-1 ACC) plays its final non-conference tilt of the regular season Saturday afternoon in Kenan Stadium against Louisville. Kickoff is set for just after 12:00 noon on ESPN2.
What are the keys for victory for the Tar Heels? Learn more in our weekly '10 Keys' feature.
RATTLE THE ROOKIE
North Carolina, coming off a couple of poor statistical defensive performances the last couple of weeks, has a chance to make a statement Saturday against the Cardinals.
Louisville, in the midst of a transition at offensive coordinator, could have a true freshman, Teddy Bridgewater, starting at quarterback on Saturday. Louisville has another option at quarterback in Will Stein, but it was Bridgewater that started and played last week against Louisville.
For the Tar Heels, one of the primary objectives defensively on Saturday has to be getting after Bridgewater, Stein, or whoever else is under center for Louisville. If it is Bridgewater, the UNC front seven needs to let him know they're there every chance they can in an effort to throw off the youngster.
"I think any week if you're going to drop back, it's always an emphasis to pressure the quarterback if they're going to drop back, and you can get there," said UNC head coach Everett WIthers. "There's some teams, they won't allow you because of their passing game. Last week it was a big emphasis. I mean, we knew we weren't going to get there that much last week because of the the type of passing game (ECU ran)."
Louisville will definitely drop back and try to spread out the Tar Heels, but UNC can neutralize that with consistent pressure along the line and into the offensive backfield.
ABSORB THE LOUISVILLE BLITZ
It's no secret that Charlie Strong is a defensive football coach, and he likes to get after opposing teams. Louisville has played decently well on defense so far this fall, and there's little doubt that they're going to try to get after UNC's Bryn Renner as much as possible with an array of blitz packages.
Carolina did a masterful job last week of handling everything that East Carolina's defense threw at them, and with the sole exception of the Georgia Tech game, the UNC offensive line has done its job pretty well.
"I think they've done pretty good," said Withers, talking about his offensive line.
"Obviously it's an emphasis (protecting Renner), because I think that's what people try to do to our quarterback is try to pressure him and try to make him make good decisions. We've taken a lot of emphasis in that, trying to get better each week."
If UNC can effectively neutralize Louisville's blitzing and keep the Cardinal defensive linemen and linebackers off Renner, it's checkmate for the Tar Heels. No. 2 will sit back there and methodically pick the Cardinals apart. But it's not going to be simple.
Louisville ranks first in the entire nation in tackles for loss per game (nine), while ranked in the top 25 nationally in both scoring and total defense. They're going to bring a particular challenge to the Tar Heels, but if the offensive line steps up the way they did against East Carolina, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Louisville prevails.
Withers indicated that nothing will change about North Carolina's offense just because Louisville's defense is statistically ranked well.
"I think you try to do what you do. You don't try to change because somebody is nationally ranked. What I believe in is you're going to do better what you do (than something else). It may not look good early," he said.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF LOUISVILLE SHAKEUP
It's been a remarkably chaotic week in Louisville's camp, as reports have come out of Bluegrass Country that offensive coordinator Mark Sanford has been fired by Strong after a heated confrontation in practice this week. Sanford reportedly didn't make the trip to North Carolina with the rest of the Louisville team.
Clearly this makes an already difficult situation even more difficult for Louisville. Coming into this game the Cardinals were already one of the worst teams offensively from a statistical perspective, ranking 105th in the BCS in scoring offense, 86th overall in total offense, and 116th out of 120 schools in sacks allowed.
Obviously, this isn't the time for UNC to start feeling sorry for Louisville. Despite all the problems Louisville brings into this game, they're their problems, and the Tar Heels don't want to make it any easier.
The best way UNC can take advantage of Louisville's coaching shakeup is to try and cross them up with various schemes and personnel moves, as well as trying to keep constant pressure on their quarterbacks. Whoever is calling the plays for Louisville is going to be faced with a new experience, at least for this season. UNC wants to make his job more difficult with a constant barrage of complicated schemes and pressure.
LBS STEPPING UP
North Carolina could very well be without two starters at linebacker on Saturday, as both Ebele Okakpu and Kevin Reddick are game-time decisions with high-ankle sprains.
If Okakpu and Reddick are held out it will be up to several players, including Zach Brown, Travis Hughes, and Darius Lipford, to step up.
Brown could very well fill the void at middle linebacker if Reddick can't go, while Hughes, who made his first career start against Georgia Tech, could very well step back into the starting lineup if Okakpu doesn't play.
Most everybody knew that Hughes would be in position to play as a true freshmen this fall, but the assortment of UNC linebacker injuries has set him up to be a primary defensive contributor to the Tar Heels. Same goes for Norkeithus Otis, who will also probably see action in the linebacker rotation Saturday.
Again an opponent in flux, with a number of question marks on offense, it's going to be really important that UNC's linebackers play up to snuff and make things more difficult for Louisville. How well guys like Hughes and Brown play stepping up for their teammates will help determine if this game is a blowout, or much closer than it could be.
With Louisville's offense averaging just 18.75 points per game and under 360 yards per game on average, it's imperative that UNC make them drive long distances to score.
Again that responsibility will largely be handled by UNC punter Thomas Hibbard, who has done an excellent job all season so far of pinning teams back deep in its own territory.
"We ask him (Hibbert) to get the ball off one. We ask him to give us some hang time, and the distance with the hang time that he's given us has been good, and obviously he's been good in 'plus' territory, putting it inside the 20. We're pleased with what he's done for us," said Coach Withers.
Given all its uncertainty on offense, it makes sense to think that Louisville is going to try to play field position, avoid turnovers at all cost, and do things that gives themselves a chance to hang in there.
But if Louisville consistently finds itself needing to drive 70, 80 yards or more to score, that doesn't bode well for them with an inexperienced quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. The Cardinals need to force turnovers on defense and find themselves playing a short field to have its best chance of winning. But if UNC keeps field position and forces them to make long drives, it's a definite advantage to the Tar Heels.
GRIND OUT THE GROUND ATTACK
Carolina has found its running game with Giovani Bernard, and it would be foolish for the Tar Heels to stray away from it now that he's 'the hot hand,' as Coach Withers puts it.
Against this opponent---an opponent that prides itself on defense---the Tar Heels will be well-served to employ a sustained ground attack meant to wear down the Louisville defense and potentially spring open some big plays over the course of the game.
"I honestly believe this---those two and three-yard runs early can turn into four, five, and six-yard runs late. If you're doing that and you're having five, six, and seven-yard runs and you're in the lead, that's a successful day to me," said Coach Withers.
Look for the Tar Heels to again look to Bernard to put them over the finish line on Saturday. Regardless of the score in the second half, UNC needs to be in position to line up and consistently extend drives and maintain possession on the ground. While they may not need to get over 200 rushing yards to win this game, they'll almost certainly get the win if they do reach that mark.
TIGHT END GAME
Offensive coordinator John Shoop has been employing several players other than his receivers in the passing game this fall, and that will likely continue on Saturday.
While there's no question that UNC will look to keep getting the ball to Dwight Jones, we also suspect that tight ends Nelson Hurst and Eric Ebron will get some opportunities.
"It's packages. Those guys (the tight ends) go in packages. They're involved in certain packages that we have, just like we do the running backs, just like we do with the wide receivers a lot of times. They have packages where they go in. That's pretty much how we use them," said Withers of the UNC tight ends.
It's common knowledge that Louisville is going to pin its ears back and come after Renner. What better way to 'check' that approach than with a consistent approach to get the ball to the tight end in locations where the blitzing linebackers used to be. If Louisville wants to put pressure on Renner, he can counter by getting his tight ends involved and making the Cardinals think twice about leaving them exposed downfield.
The offensive coordinator situation at Louisville has made things a little more complicated from UNC's perspective because now, they have to be prepared for just about anything out of the Cardinals.
"It will be interesting what we get this week. They play two different quarterbacks. Their offense has been a little bit of a flux. We could get 'Wildcat' the whole game. We could get 'No Huddle' the whole game. We really don't know. We're trying to really plan for a lot of different things," said Withers. We may see a lot of 'Wildcat' and running the ball and trying to play field position."
What has to continue being a part of Carolina's game plan is working to force turnovers, and to make sure that those chances for interceptions and forced fumbles aren't wasted.
Louisville can't win this game if they're turning the ball over---just like ECU couldn't.
"I think they (Louisville) want to give the quarterback some confidence by trying to get the ball out of his hand and getting some early completions with hitches and slants and those type things. I think more than anything else they're going to try not to turn it over. They play good defense. They're going to try not to turn it over," said Withers.
If Carolina forces turnovers the way they did against East Carolina, it's ball game. But they may not need four turnovers. Even one or two turnovers at the right moment could be huge for the Tar Heels.
PLAY WITH EMOTION
Louisville is UNC's last non-conference opponent of the regular season, but that doesn't mean it's time to let up. The Cardinals are good enough defensively to make things difficult all day for the Tar Heels, so the last thing UNC's offense wants to do is come out without any emotion and let Louisville get the early upper hand.
Carolina has done a fairly solid job this season getting off to good starts. With the exception of the Rutgers game, UNC has pretty much taken care of business in the first half of most of the rest of its contests. That needs to continue this week, and it starts with coming out of the tunnel and the smoke with a great deal of passion.
Louisville is a mess right now. It's no secret. Their players are likely going to step onto the field at Kenan Stadium with a big chip on their shoulder. It doesn't help UNC's cause if they're not prepared to match that intensity.
STAY SOLID IN RED ZONE
Carolina's defense this fall has been categorized as 'Bend But Don't Break' because of the fact that they've been giving up lots of yardage, but have been outstanding in the red zone. Teams are scoring touchdowns less than half the time against the Tar Heel defense when they reach the 20-yard line.
Louisville may not get a lot of red zone opportunities on Saturday if the UNC defense is playing well and the Tar Heel offense isn't turning the ball over, but it bears repeating that Carolina should have a lot of confidence defensively even if Louisville spends much of the day in the red zone.
On the flip side, UNC's offense needs to get it done when they're in the red zone, pushing Louisville's defense on the brink and past it. Realistically, Louisville's strong defense is the biggest thing that gives them hope heading into this game. Nothing would demoralize them more successfully than pushing them multiple times deep into their own territory and pushing it over the goal line.