Much like North Carolina last season, the Hurricanes football program is currently awaiting sanctions to be levied by the NCAA regarding allegations of improper benefits received by numerous players. Just last week, athletic director Shawn Eichorst announced his decision to leave Miami to take over the athletic department at Nebraska.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the program's future and accompanying distractions, the Hurricanes have exceeded expectations so far this season. Miami was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, ahead of only Duke. Halfway through the season the Hurricanes sit alongside the Blue Devils atop the Coastal.
Entering 2012, the offense was the big question mark surrounding the football team. Gone were All-ACC running back Lamar Miller, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and quarterback Jacory Harris, as well as four other starters.
Junior quarterback Stephen Morris (142-of-242, 1836 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) is now the leader of the offense and his performance thus far has been stellar for a first-year starter, considering the lack of experienced players surrounding him. With two sophomores starting at wide receiver and freshman Duke Johnson (60 car, 381 yards, 5 TD) at running back, the Miami offense ranks 40th in the nation in total offense (441.33 ypg) under the guidance of Morris.
Despite returning seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, Miami has struggled mightily to prevent opponents from keeping up with the Hurricanes' talented offense. Miami ranks 118th out of 120 teams in total defense (510 ypg). The Hurricanes' defensive struggles were highlighted in losses to No. 21 Kansas State and No. 9 Notre Dame. The Hurricanes were outscored 93-16 and outgained 1,085 to 547 in those two losses. Miami has yet to hold an FBS opponent under 32 points.
Miami entered 2012 as the only program in the ACC not to return its starting quarterback. Head coach Al Golden has also been forced to play a large number of underclassmen due to the attrition from last season. This Saturday, Miami is expected to play its 20th freshman of the season.
Despite the youth movement, the Hurricanes sit at 3-0 in the ACC and in control of its own destiny for an ACC Championship game appearance. Starting Saturday, the schedule picks up for the Hurricanes, as North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech all travel to South Florida over the next month.
"We're getting ready for our fourth ACC game and obviously an opponent that is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and coming into our game really hot, in North Carolina. It's really the most complete team I've seen on film so far, in all three phrases. On offense they're averaging close to 45 points a game, and I think their quarterback is really ripping it right now. They have a veteran offensive line, two of the best linemen I've seen on film yet in [Jonathan] Cooper at left guard and [Brennan] Williams, their right tackle. [Eric] Ebron, the tight end, poses some threats both in the run game and in terms of his matchup in the pass game - they displace him a lot. Giovani Bernard is coming off his best game, and we also see [A.J] Blue who's a big running back.” – Golden
“They've got talent. They’re as talented a team [as there is] in the league really. They've got guys that can run, they've got size, they've got hitters, they've got receivers that can go, they've got running backs, the quarterback is doing a nice job, so they've got the players there. From my understanding, they’ve played more freshmen than anybody in the country.” – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora on Miami
Matchups to Watch
Miami’s Stephen Morris vs. UNC’s Secondary
Lost in the excitement of Saturday’s victory over Virginia Tech was the fact that the Tar Heel defense surrendered career highs in completions (26) and yardage (345) to Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas. Those numbers can be partially attributed to Virginia Tech’s inability to run the ball as well as playing catch-up for the majority of the game. However, it is also the second time in as many ACC games that the opposing quarterback notched career-high numbers against North Carolina. Wake Forest’s Tanner Price threw for a career-best 327 yards in a 28-27 victory over North Carolina on Sept. 8.
Morris and the Miami passing game present the toughest challenge of the year thus far for the North Carolina secondary. Despite entering the season as the most inexperienced starting quarterback in the ACC, Morris currently leads the ACC in passing yardage (1,836) and yards per game (306). Overall, the Miami pass offense ranks 18th in the country (307.17 ypg).
The top two targets for Morris are a pair of sophomore wide receivers. Sophomore Phillip Dorsett (29 rec, 470 yards, 3 TD) and Rashawn Scott (21 rec, 359, 2 TD) compliment each other well. Dorsett (5-foot-10, 186-pounds) is the quicker and smaller slot target, while Scott (6-foot-2, 200-pounds) is a physical receiver who can go up and get the ball over defensive backs.
Less than two weeks ago, Morris set an ACC single-game record with 566 passing yards in a 44-37 Hurricanes win over N.C. State. Dorsett and Scott combined for 371 receiving yards and four touchdowns against the Wolfpack. In three ACC games - all Miami victories - Morris has thrown for an average of 403 yards per game to go along with a total of eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Only Boston College (405 ypg) averages more passing yards per game in conference play.
On the flip side, North Carolina ranks second-to-last in pass defense (358 ypg) in ACC play. While the sample size is only two games, the Tar Heels have yet to face a passing game the caliber of Miami.
UNC's Gio Bernard vs. Miami’s Run Defense
On paper, this appears to be the biggest mismatch of the game. Bernard is coming off a career-best performance in which he rushed for 262 yards and a touchdown on just 23 carries in North Carolina’s victory over Virginia Tech. Miami surrendered 376 rushing yards in the 41-3 loss to Notre Dame last week. Fighting Irish running backs George Atkinson III (123) and Cierre Wood (118) both ran for over 100 yards and combined for three touchdowns.
According to the depth chart released on Monday, the Hurricanes expect to start four sophomores and two freshmen along its front seven this Saturday. Sophomore defensive tackle Olsen Pierre returns from injury this week, but his presence alone may not be enough against a Tar Heel offensive line that includes three seniors, a junior and a sophomore.
Following last week’s performance, Bernard (52 car, 475 yards, 5 TD) unofficially ranks second in the country in yards per carry (9.1), but since he has not participated in at least 75 percent of North Carolina’s games this season, he is not listed in the official statistics. However, turn on the film and you cannot hide the ability of the Davie, Fla. native.
"We have to tackle well,” Golden said. “[Bernard] spins on contact; he has a low center of gravity. He's doing a really good job of cutting the ball back. He has an excellent offensive line that can get out in front of him. He can run inside and outside.
"But certainly we have to scheme to stop him. We have to make sure as we do that, we don't compromise the explosive plays on the back end. That's why they're scoring so many points - they get you in some compromising positions, and we have to diffuse some of those."
The Hurricane defense has not diffused much of anything so far this season. The rush defense (250.67 ypg) ranks 116th in the country and second-to-last in the ACC. This, to go along with the nation's 91st-ranked pass defense (259.33 ypg), is why Miami surrenders nearly 35 points per game.
Bernard, along with Blue and Romar Morris, lead a North Carolina rushing attack (200.33 ypg) that ranks 32nd in the country and fourth in the ACC.
Follow IC on Twitter @InsideCarolina.
Like IC on Facebook InsideCarolina.