The North Carolina Tar Heels that enter Papa John's Cardinal Stadium this afternoon figure to be vastly improved from the squad that No. 22 Louisville shutout 34-0 last season in Chapel Hill.
Since the pasting the Cardinals put on the Heels a year ago, John Bunting’s squad has show steady improvement. Not only did UNC upset Miami after losing to U of L last season, they also earned a bid to the Continental Tire Bowl. This season, the Tar Heels are off to a 2-2 start against a schedule rated the nation’s most difficult by CBSsportsline.com.
“North Carolina is a good football team,” Petrino said. “They're big and fast on defense, and they've been playing really good defense. They're blitzing a lot and not letting people move the ball on them very much.”
As much improvement as his squad has made since last season, Bunting knows his team will face a major challenge from the Cardinals today.
”There’s no doubt about it, (Louisville) is a talented football team,” Bunting said. “They’ve got a lot of pieces of the puzzle. They’ve got a fine offensive line. They’ve got a very dangerous defense. It was a little different this week working with them against this offense; they’ve got an offense kind of like State’s.”
Petrino said he’s noticed a difference in UNC’s team this year.
"They're playing a lot harder and a lot more physical,” said Petrino. “They have a lot of the same players we played against last year on both sides of the ball, but they just seem like their defensive front is playing a lot faster and they look like they're playing a lot more together."
Since opening the season with losses to Georgia Tech (27-21) and Wisconsin (14-5), North Carolina has reeled off consecutive victories over N.C. State (31-24) and Utah (31-17). Last week against the Utes, it was the Tar Heels defense that proved the difference in the game.
“They got five turnovers against Utah and were clearly the better team,” Petrino said. “Offensively, they’ve gotten better each week. They started out pretty slow, but the quarterback is starting to be more comfortable and they're throwing the ball downfield a little more.”
Can the North Carolina defense do
something that no other Louisville
opponent has been able to do - slow
down Super Mario?
On the strength of nine returning starters, North Carolina has been much improved on defense this season, particularly against the run. The Tar Heels rank 39th nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 117.0 yards per game on the ground. Perhaps most telling, UNC held Utah to 378 yards after allowing 669 the season prior.
"They're a physical team and they like to blitz,” said Petrino. “We have to go right at them. We have to be able to punch the ball at them, be patient, move the sticks and then get some big plays as the game goes on."
Offensively, Matt Baker has taken over for versatile dual-threat quarterback Darian Durrant. Baker, a 6-3, 212-pound senior, ranks second in the ACC in total offense (255) and third in passing yards (251).
"He's a fifth-year senior so he knows their offense very well,” said Petrino. “He's got a good arm and he's pretty mobile. He’s not like (Darian) Durant as far as his running ability, but he will tuck the ball and run it. The main thing we need to do is get some pressure on him and try to keep his eyes down as opposed to downfield."
While UNC has been solid moving the ball through the air, they’ve struggled moving it on the ground. And though the Tar Heels have averaged a paltry 87 yards per game rushing, North Carolina could get a big boost from the return of Ronnie McGill, who led the team in rushing two years ago as a freshman.
“They haven't run the ball well, but they're supposed to get (Ronnie McGill) back to play against us,” Petrino said. “He's a really good running back.”