We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This installment of the Opponent Q&A series features a chat with Tanya Bondurant, managing editor at Tar Heel Blog, SBN’s North Carolina site. We talk a puzzling lack of rushing attempts, shoring up the run defense, and what it will take for the Heels to pull the upset in Doak.
TN: North Carolina entered the season coming off of a very successful 2015 with plenty of talent returning. What were your expectations for the 2016 season, and have the early results changed them at all?
THB: I think things have gone pretty much as expected for Carolina so far this season. We’d obviously love to have the Georgia game back, but there really haven’t been many surprises. The Heels should be in a position to return to the ACC Championship game this year, and they are on track to do so. Whether or not they can hold up to the tough ACC schedule ahead remains to be seen.
TN: Despite a formidable backfield duo of Mitch Trubisky and Elijah Hood, the Heels rank near the bottom of the nation in rushing attempts per game. To what do you attribute this, and would you like to see it change?
THB: Play calling, mostly. If you know why Larry Fedora doesn’t run the ball more, please let us know. Part of it is that the pass has been tough for teams to stop with Trubisky having so much chemistry with his receivers. T.J. Logan has also out shined Elijah Hood just a bit in the games so far. It definitely needs to change if the team wants to take the next step.
TN: Which match-ups do you like for the Carolina offense against the Seminole defense? Which concern you?
THB: It’s hard not to like Trubisky’s chances against almost anyone at this point in time. The kid has been just magnificent out there in his first taste of calling the Heels his team. Florida State gives up points, and Trubisky is in a perfect position to grab them. That being said, the UNC defense also gives up points. They also have been incapable of stopping the run at times. That could be a nightmare against the likes of Dalvin Cook.
TN: The UNC rush defense has struggled, both last season and so far this year. How do you expect them to try to contain Dalvin Cook and the FSU run game?
THB: Like I said, that could be a nightmare. There is no easy solution here, unfortunately. The defense has to step up and make plays like they did in the fourth quarter against Pitt. Play like that against Cook and maybe they find a way to keep him from running wild. Otherwise, the defense will have to hope they can do just enough to keep the offense within striking distance.
TN: How has North Carolina's pass defense fared this season, and which players will be key to its success on Saturday?
THB: The pass defense has been better than the run defense, but neither is a lockdown unit. The Tar Heels have gotten some strong play out of pass defense, but there have also been moments of great frustration, stupid penalties, and some inexperience. Patrice Rene will be important on Saturday, and a freshman playing in a tough environment like Tallahassee is cause for concern. Des Lawrence will also be someone to watch.
TN: How would you rate the play of UNC's special teams so far this year?
THB: Special teams have been pretty good with the exception of the Pittsburgh game. Everyone is entitled to a one-off, I guess. T.J. Logan has made his presence felt, and Ryan Switzer is always a threat in the return game. After kicking was such a nightmare in Chapel Hill a few seasons ago, I’d say everyone is feeling more confident about it these days.
TN: Finally, give us a prediction. How do you see this game unfolding in Tallahassee?
THB: Um, first one to 50 wins? This one could definitely be a shootout. I have to be optimistic and say the Heels find a way to pull it off, 41-38.
Thanks to Tanya for her time and insight! Head over to Tar Heel Blog for all things North Carolina.