The North Carolina football team (5-2, 5-2 ACC) will host in-state conference rival Wake Forest (4-2, 3-2) at noon on Saturday.
Last year, the Tar Heels' first loss of the 2019 season came on the road at the hands of the Demon Deacons in a 24-18 contest.
This year, Wake Forest has a new look entering Saturday’s matchup, with redshirt sophomore Sam Hartman replacing Jamie Newman at quarterback after he transferred to Georgia. Wake Forest also lost third-team All-ACC offensive linemen Justin Herron and linebacker Justin Strnad to the NFL Draft. Wide receiver Sage Surratt — a likely NFL Draft pick and brother of UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt — also opted out of the season.
While the Demon Deacons are retooling after losing several pieces, UNC is returning most of its core from last year's loss. Here are three keys for the Tar Heels to get revenge and claim their sixth win of the season.
Contain Demon Deacons’ running back duo
The Demon Deacons have one of the ACC’s premiere running back tandems in Kenneth Walker III and Christian Beal-Smith. Walker III is averaging 88 rushing yards per game, while Beal-Smith is averaging 78.7 yards per game, good for seventh and eighth in the ACC, respectively.
Last match against Duke, running back Mataeo Durant rushed for 132 yards on 11 carries and exposed weaknesses in the Tar Heels’ rush defense during UNC's 56-24 win last Saturday. However, Durant isn't the only running back North Carolina's rush defense struggled to corral. Florida State’s La'Damian Webb rushed for 109 yards on 12 carries in the Seminoles upset victory over UNC, and Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert rushed for 138 yards on 18 carries in the Hokies’ loss in Chapel Hill.
Wake Forest could make things interesting by leaning on its running back tandem and controlling possession if the Tar Heels struggle to contain Walker III and Beal-Smith.
The Tar Heels' offensive line has allowed an average of 2.86 sacks per game this season. They’ll need to continue to protect sophomore quarterback Sam Howell and give him a clean pocket against a stingy Demon Deacons’ secondary.
Wake Forest's 11 interceptions through six games puts it at No. 2 in the ACC in total interceptions behind the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Demon Deacons' secondary has also allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the ACC. First-year safety Nick Andersen leads Wake Forest with three interceptions on the season through six games.
If the Tar Heels’ offensive line allows Wake Forest to put pressure on Howell and force him to pass under duress, the Demon Deacons’ secondary could create turnovers and give their offense more possessions.
Despite the presence of preseason All-ACC defensive end Carlos Basham, Wake Forest struggles to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Basham has five of the Demon Deacons’ 13 total sacks.
UNC's offensive line — which protected Howell well against elite pass rushers such as Duke’s Victor Dimukeje and Virginia’s Charles Snowden — shouldn’t struggle to block the ACC’s second-worst pass rush and give Howell time to make good decisions.
Continued strong play from secondary
North Carolina’s young, inexperienced secondary struggled to stop Virginia’s passing attack during the Tar Heels’ second loss of the season, but bounced back with a strong performance in a victory against the Blue Devils.
UNC will need to roll that momentum over into Saturday’s matchup against Hartman and the Demon Deacons’ passing attack. Although Hartman only has four passing touchdowns this season, he’s an effective passer who makes few mistakes. Hartman is the only starting quarterback in the ACC without an interception to his name, and he boasts an impressive 140.97 quarterback rating.
Hartman’s most dangerous target is junior wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson, who leads Wake Forest in receiving yards with 490. Containing Roberson and an efficient Wake Forest passing game will be a key for the Tar Heels to get their sixth win of the season.
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