Before the season, North Carolina football head coach Mack Brown emphasized the need for his team to win close games if they hoped to win the ACC Coastal Division.
Throughout most of the season, the team was able to do exactly, starting off 6-0 in one-score games and clinching a berth in the ACC Championship Game after a 36-34 win over Wake Forest, where they'll face the Atlantic Division Champion Clemson Tigers on Saturday. But since then, the Tar Heels have found themselves on the wrong side of such nail-biters, losing by a combined seven points to Georgia Tech and N.C. State.
“We haven’t played as well on offense,” Brown said. “We were playing at a really high level on offense, and we’ve had too many misses on third down. The defense has gotten better, and the offense hasn’t produced as well as we did in the previous games. We’re not as consistent.”
Clemson’s defense is one of the best in the conference, giving up just 326.7 total yards per game. The Tar Heels have surpassed that mark the past two weeks, but still had their two worst offensive games this season in terms of yardage.
Against a front four that offensive coordinator Phil Longo called "elite," it is essential that UNC protects redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye, something the team has struggled with recently. In losses to the Yellow Jackets and Wolfpack, the Tar Heels' offensive line allowed a combined eight sacks and 12 quarterback hurries.
“You’re going to see most of (Clemson's defensive line) playing at the next level at some point,” Longo said. “The front four are really, really impressive. The linebacking core, it’s hard to say they’re the strength, because the d-line is good, but the front seven is the strength of their football team right now.”
North Carolina must reignite the explosive offense that showed up in matchups against App State and Wake Forest as well as protect Maye if they hope to penetrate the Tigers' front seven.
On the other side of the ball, North Carolina’s defense has shown improvements as the season has progressed. However, the one issue they’ve had all year is the inability to pressure the quarterback. The Tar Heels have the fourth-fewest sacks in the FBS with just 16, and they've managed to hurry the quarterback fewer than three times per game.
“Some of it is the design of the defense,” assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik said. “I think we have to do a better job of winning our one-on-one battles up front. Every game is different in terms of what your objective is in terms of pressuring the quarterback.”
If UNC can’t pressure Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, he possesses the arm strength to make them pay. Against Wake Forest, Uiagalelei passed for 371 yards and five touchdowns, torching the Demon Deacons' secondary. Also, Uiagalelei stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 235 pounds, making him hard to tackle once he gets out of the pocket.
If North Carolina's defense can’t generate pressure, it’ll also struggle to contain one of the most prolific runners in the ACC, sophomore running back Will Shipley.
Shipley is second in the conference in rushing yards with 1,092 and has impressed many with his ability to get downfield in a hurry. Against Syracuse, Clemson was able to run all over the Orange, with Shipley accounting for 172 of Clemson’s 293 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
After dropping two straight games to backup quarterbacks and having their offense sputter, the Tar Heels must answer these questions before Saturday if they hope to win the program's first ACC title in over 40 years.
“Our kids are excited,” Brown said. “We have a chance to play in the conference championship. That’s happened once (at North Carolina) since 2012. We are excited, this is fun. I can’t wait.”
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