Going into one of the most anticipated games of the season, the No. 15 North Carolina football team is getting hot at the right time.
The Tar Heels are currently on a five-game win streak and remain undefeated in conference play. This weekend, UNC will head up the road to Winston-Salem to face off against Wake Forest — in perhaps its most challenging game on the schedule — looking to carry this winning momentum with it on the road.
Head coach Mack Brown has cited the team's ability to finish games as the deciding factor behind these contested road victories time and again this season. And the more the team plays, the more this ability shines through.
Just last weekend in Charlottesville, the Tar Heels' defensive line came out of the gates looking sluggish, immediately giving up a touchdown to the Cavaliers and putting the team in an early hole. However, as it has many times this season, the team was able to claw its way back to an eventual three-point victory with a strong showing in the last 30 minutes.
“We're giving up 8.4 points per game in the second half of ACC games and we’re averaging giving up 5.6 points in the fourth quarter of ACC games," Brown said. "So we’re playing much better defense than we’re getting credit for."
Unlike Virginia, Wake Forest is a team defined by its offensive prowess. Coming off a two-game losing streak, the Demon Deacons will be hungrier than ever to get a win for their home crowd.
“(Wake’s offensive scheme is) very unique. I've never seen it before but it's very productive and makes a lot of sense,” UNC assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik said. “They do a great job of really reading and getting one-on-ones where they want to get one-on-ones, and then they can expose you there and that's why they've scored a lot of points.”
A big part of this offensive success can be credited to quarterback Sam Hartman, who Brown labeled “one of the best quarterbacks to ever play college football.” He holds the record at Wake Forest for career touchdown passes with 96 and boasts 11,689 career passing yards.
However, Wake Forest will have to contend with UNC's own rising offensive star in redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye, who has improved with each game.
“He’s the buzz. There’s a lot of people talking about him across the country,” Brown said. “He’s so competitive and football is so important to him that he’s got a really good learning curve. And when he sees something that he needs to (fix), he puts total emphasis on it and he fixes it.”
The Demon Deacons are all too aware of Maye's success and will look to shut down UNC’s passing game. With a brand new defensive coordinator in Brad Lambert, Wake Forest's defense is a relatively unknown threat.
“This week we’re planning for a completely different Wake Forest defense than we have in the last few years,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “It presents different problems — they still have the same strengths from a personnel standpoint, so we’re just studying what Wake does this year and how they do it.”
Wake Forest's new defensive line is one that is defined by aggressiveness, and the unit is going to test UNC’s blocking abilities. Longo compared the team's playing style to that of Pittsburgh, whose physicality challenged North Carolina in its matchup on Oct. 29.
“I like our guys up front. We’re much better than we were in the beginning of the season and I think we’re getting better technically and fundamentally,” Longo said. “There’s a lot of mojo in that room right now, a lot of confidence.”
Over the last few weeks, the team has adopted a one-game-at-a-time mentality, which has been emphasized throughout each position group. With the season reaching the final stage, the message is as important as ever.
"We’ve had a lot of hype, it's time to play," Brown said “It’s about winning, period, 100 percent.”
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