ANNAPOLIS, Md. — For the final time this season, it’s gameday for North Carolina.
For the first time since 2016, the final gameday comes in the postseason as the Tar Heels are set to meet Temple at Noon on Friday in the Military Bowl at Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Here’s what to watch for as the Tar Heels (6-6) and Owls (8-4) get together for their first-ever matchup.
Hold That Line
Temple is strong on both lines of scrimmage, and while Carolina has had some success, both lines have been inconsistent at times for the Tar Heels, largely due to a lack of depth.
It’s not tough to see that the Owls’ imposing front line, which ranks 13 nationally with 39 sacks, will be the biggest obstacle for an offensive line that ranks 116 nationally in sacks allowed, having given up a little over three per game.
Defensive end Quincy Roche (13 sacks, 18 TFL) and company will have a chance to impact the game. The question will be whether Sam Howell’s pocket mobility and well-timed screen passes will be able to neutralize a dogged pass-rush.
Meanwhile on the flip side, the Owls offensive line does an excellent job with protection, having allowed 18 sacks (22 nationally) this season. Carolina’s biggest defensive issues have been caused by a lack of quarterback pressure, so will defensive coordinator Jay Bateman get creative with actual blitzes or disguise coverages to have Anthony Russo seeing ghosts?
Riding the Wave
Sure, Mercer was overmatched, but the blowout victory was the start of something for a Carolina program still moving past the failures of the past two seasons.
Couple that with the 41-10 win at N.C. State on Nov. 30, and it’s been a long time since things felt this good, this long for the Tar Heels.
“I do think that after Mercer, we gained more confidence,” Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “N.C. State, we didn’t have a great first half but they really felt good at halftime and came out and played a great second half, so I’m excited to see us play because I feel like we’re a better team than we’ve been all year, going into this ballgame.”
A major reason for that is continuity. Aside from the players who have already been declared out for the season, everyone is healthy and ready to go for the first time since the season-opener.
If the Tar Heels are able to pick up where they left off, win handily and put up big offensive numbers, it’s hard to imagine they won’t be a top-25 team in the preseason.
“We need the momentum from this game to carry over into January, the offseason program and getting ready for spring,” Brown said.
Over 3 ½ games (he sat the second half vs. Mercer) in November, quarterback Sam Howell completed 75 of 118 pass attempts (63.5 percent) for 1,228 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions on his way to taking home the ACC’s rookie of the year award and various other freshman honors.
The Military Bowl marks yet another national showcase opportunity for Howell and it’s possible offensive coordinator Phil Longo opens up a new section of the playbook for the freshman.
A major element of Longo’s version of the Air Raid is running the quarterback, but because of injuries, Carolina couldn’t afford to use Howell to his full potential.
Brown said last week that Howell will be a factor in the running game in future seasons. With nine months until next season, that future might arrive early.
“I feel like in this offense, your quarterback has to run,” Brown said. “The plays that Vince Young and Colt McCoy made with their feet were huge for us.”
Coming Out Sharp
The month off is an excellent chance to heal up, focus on the gameplan and do self-focused work in practice, but it also comes with some of the challenges of the first game of the season.
“Bowl games are very much like opening games, you have the same concerns: You haven’t been hit really for a month, the ball-carriers haven’t been tackled full-speed, your kicking game hasn’t been full speed, and usually, it’s a team that loses the bowl game more than who wins it,” Brown said.
In terms of the matchup, both teams have plenty of reason to be motivated as Temple can knock off a third Power Five opponent, while Carolina is excited to be back in the postseason.
For Brown, it’ll come down to the details.
“You start looking at who’s going to protect the ball best on a cold day? Who’s going to get more turnovers and take advantage of them? And it’s usually kicking game, and those are things that you can’t prepare for as well in an opening game,” he said. “It pops back up in bowl games.”
Road to 1K
In the history of Carolina football, three receivers have put up 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Heading into Friday with 947 yards apiece, both Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome have a chance to grow the club significantly with two more big numbers within reach, too. At 11 touchdowns, Brown has a shot at the single-season mark shared by Dwight Jones and Hakeem Nicks at 12, while Newsome, with 64 catches, can finish with a top-five mark in single-season receptions.
The 1,000 yard mark is within reach for both feature backs too, as Michael Carter (919) and Javonte Williams (848) have a shot to reach the milestone.
Brown said that coaches or players certainly won’t be concerned with those numbers during the game, but if there’s an opportunity late, a member of the sports information staff might alert the staff.
“‘If it works, Javonte needs 10 yards,’” Brown said. “If the game’s over, we might try to get it for him or something.”