Two years ago, the North Carolina football team rolled into Piscataway, N.J., for its Thursday night game against Rutgers riding a wave of optimism.
The Tar Heels boasted a talented and experienced receiving corps, as well as a promising young quarterback some thought could lead UNC to its first ACC title since 1980.
But while the Tar Heels are hoping for the same result as the nationally televised 44-12 thrashing they delivered last time they were in New Jersey, the circumstances surrounding this year’s visit couldn’t be more different, as a Tar Heel loss would give UNC its first 0-3 record since 2003.
“Things that happened two years ago, obviously it’s a totally different football team,” UNC head coach Butch Davis said. “There’s guys that played offensively and defensively that, you know, they’re not going to be in that game.”
While T.J. Yates will once again be under center for the Tar Heels, he’ll have to look for new weapons from the ones he used two seasons ago to throw for three touchdowns on 221 passing yards.
In that game, all three touchdowns and all but 20 of the receiving yards came from current NFL receivers Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate.
Though sophomore Jheranie Boyd had a career day against LSU, Yates was unable to get him the ball against Georgia Tech’s double and triple coverage.
“Georgia Tech did a very good job game-planning against him and making sure he didn’t catch any deep balls,” Yates said, “So we’re going to have to come up with creative ways to kind of get him downfield and get the ball in his hands.”
The game will also look much different along the trenches. The Tar Heel defensive line has struggled in the past two games without future NFL draft picks Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn, who have been held out for a team rules violation and as part the ongoing investigation into the football program, respectively.
Their absence has forced the team to rely heavily on new starters Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell to perform on a defensive line.
“I get a little tired, but it’s all about sucking it up and playing football,” Coples said, “When you’re out there, you really don’t feel it when the ball’s snapped.”
Coples and Powell benefit from facing a Rutgers offensive line that has gone through an overhaul of its own during the offseason.
The Scarlet Knights lost three starters from last year, including offensive tackle Anthony Davis, the 11th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. One of the two starters who does return to the Rutgers offensive line, senior center Howard Barbieri, had to move from his original position as a guard.
The Tar Heels will welcome the inexperience along the opposing offensive line after giving up a combined 534 rushing yards in their first two games.
“With the young line or whatever, I feel like there should be more opportunities for us to make plays,” Coples said.
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