The Cardinals head into the first game of the ACC slate this weekend with a Saturday trip to Chapel Hill. This will be the eighth meeting between the Cardinals and Tarheels on the gridiron with Louisville holding a 4-3 series advantage winning three of the last four. Coach Petrino is 2-0 against the powder blue but has yet to face them during the Fedora era. This will be a match-up of two great offensive minds.
North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora is in his sixth season at Chapel Hill. Fedora is known for his aggressive, attacking philosophy on both sides of the ball. It’s a wide open spread offense and a blitz-heavy defense. Fedora was hired by UNC in 2012 and during that first season his attack was on full display in Louisville. I was at Papa John’s stadium when his first UNC team overcame a 39-14 deficit with seven minutes left in the game to come within finger tips of beating the then 19th ranked Cardinals. In the second half of that game his team carved thru Coach Strong’s defense like a hot knife thru butter.
Fedora only returns about 13 percent of his Total yards of offense from last season passing, rushing and receiving. Seven starters had to be replaced. So, he might not have the offensive fire power he had on that day in Papa John’s Stadium but his system is firmly in place at UNC and he does have a roster full of young and talented athletes. He also has some graduate transfers to try and replace some of that production. One of those graduate transfers is QB Brandon Harris. Before making his UNC debut last week against Cal he had 13 starts for LSU. His UNC debut didn’t go so well as he posted a pair of interceptions early and was pulled in favor of freshman QB Chazz Surratt, who fared better on 161 yards and one TD. He also ran for 66 yards and a score.
The Cardinals could see both guys on Saturday as there seems to still be some competition going on for the starting role. But Harris should get the start and play most of the game. He is the experienced QB and I think he’ll play with something to prove to his head coach. Harris will be handing the ball off to sophomore running back Jordon Brown and freshman Michael Carter. Brown is their returning guy and poses a real threat both on the ground and as a receiver. He led the team last week with 9 catches for 53 yards. Carter also had a big debut with 94 yards and 2 touchdowns. He is taking the bruiser role for this offense and will be in when they need those tough yards.
Senior wide receiver Austin Proehl will be the primary target through the air. He is their most experienced guy and is close to having a thousand yards for his career. They really lack experience in their wide receiver corps and will rely on the other guys to step up in this game. Among those guys are freshman Roscoe Johnson, second season transfer from Vandy senior Jordan Cunningham and fourth year player junior Devin Perry. Johnson is a talented freshman and I think could be one of their biggest threats. He caught two passes for 25 yards in his debut last week. They also have a couple of good tight ends with sophomore Carl Tucker and junior Brandon Fritts. These guys combined for 30 yards of offense last week. There is a lot of building going on for this UNC offense but they have a great offensive line to do it behind. The offensive line will be the biggest advantage for UNC in this game. This group is led by Senior LT Bentley Spain (13 starts) and senior RG R.J. Prince (12 starts). Add in graduate transfers C Cam Dillard of Florida and LG Khaliel Rodgers of USC, and this group is legit.
This will be the second week straight that Coach Sirmon and his defense will face an aggressive offensive game plan. Coach Fedora will attack on every level so the Cardinals are going to have to be active. The defense may have to do that without All-American Jaire Alexander who is nursing a sore leg. Ronald Walker could see extended time if Alexander can’t go. He stepped up big against Purdue. I’m also excited to see the follow up performance from Trevon Young. He had a triumphant return to the field last week with a sack and a tackle for loss against Purdue. He along with the guys on the Louisville defensive front are going to be busy on Saturday. I think this unit will get better every week and they’ll be up to the challenge.
The Cardinals offense overcame some early mistakes and outscored the Boilermakers 25-14 in the second half after trailing 14-10 at halftime. Lamar Jackson had a great outing in his Week 1 debut, going 30-of-46 for 378 yards and two touchdowns through the air and 21 carries for 107 yards on the ground. Jaylen Smith was the Cardinals’ leading receiver with eight grabs for 117 yards. Dez Fitzpatrick had a solid debut as well with 95 yards and a touchdown. The biggest thing for the offense this weekend is to hold on to the football. It’s very hard to win on the road and almost impossible if you turn the ball over. Penalties are also a big concern for this group heading into week number two. Again, very hard to win on the road if you are battling negative yards all day. I would also like to see the run game be more productive this week. And will be watching the offensive line to hopefully see continued improvement.
Trying to slow down the Louisville attack this week will be a UNC defensive unit that boast the most experience on the team. Their defense was expected to be a strength for them but that didn’t work out very well for them in week 1. They gave up six plays of at least 20 yards against Cal. Keep in mind that Cal was breaking in a new QB. That is a far cry from the returning Heisman Trophy winner they will face this weekend. Junior LB Andre Smith is one of their best defensive players. He had 10 tackles with a 73-yard interception in their opener. He said earlier this week that he didn’t intend for Saturday to become “the Lamar Jackson show.” Smith along with fellow linebacker Cole Holcomb and senior corner MJ Stewart will try to hold down a talented group of Louisville speedsters. Jr defensive linemen Malik Carney and sophomore Aaron Crawford will try to stop the Louisville offense before it gets started. These guys combined for 10 tackles and a sack last week. This UNC defensive unit has had a lot to say this week but they seem to still have a lot to prove.
North Carolina is going to pull out all the stops on Saturday honoring their basketball team and an appearance from MJ was planned. Don’t think MJ can make it due to travel restrictions but they’ll still be fired up in Chapel Hill. They are a team that is hungry for that first win of the season and they always play their best in front of the home crowd. Fedora has a 25-9 record at Kenan Stadium. If the Cardinals come out and play sloppy football with a lot of mistakes it could be a long day. If Lamar and the guys come out and play solid football I still expect it to be a battle but one that the Cardinals should win.
Enjoy it! Go Cards!