5 things to watch: Tar Heels face must-win situation in Miami

Saturdays football game between North Carolina and Miami could have been for control of the ACCs Coastal Division. Now, with both teams coming off losses, its become a battle for survival

Jeremy Brevard—USA Today Sports
Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Ahmmon Richards (82) catches a pass during the third quarter against the Appalachian State Mountaineers at Kidd Brewer Stadium.

Saturday’s football game between North Carolina and Miami could have been for control of the ACC’s Coastal Division. Now, with both teams coming off losses, it’s become a battle for survival. Because of Virginia Tech’s remaining schedule — which avoids cross-over heavyweights Clemson, Louisville and Florida State — and the fact that the Hokies already hold a tiebreaker on the Tar Heels thanks to last week’s soggy 34-3 rout in Chapel Hill, a loss would all but crush either team’s realistic chances at a division title. So as both look to bounce back from damaging losses, here are five things to watch when UNC (4-2, 2-1 ACC) takes on No. 16 Miami (4-1, 1-1) at 3:30 p.m. in South Florida in as much of must-win situation as there can be in mid-October:Better to take away than give away As bad as the wind and rain associated with Hurricane Matthew were last Saturday, UNC has no one to blame for its epic demise against Virginia but itself after consistently hurting itself with turnovers and mistakes. Twenty of the Hokies’ 34 points came as a direct result of the Tar Heels’ two lost fumbles and quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s first two interceptions of the season after going a school-record 243 passes without getting picked off. UNC also handed the Hokies another touchdown when punter Tom Sheldon mishandled a snap and was tackled at the 4-yard line. “If we can just take care of the ball, we’ll have a better shot at the end of the game,” Trubisky said earlier this week. “You have to credit them for taking advantage of points on turnovers. They made it happen and we didn’t. “It all comes down to taking care of the football. We’ve got to keep the ball in our hands, finish drives and put points on the board.” That, however, is only half the equation for the Tar Heels. While their offense can’t give the ball away the way it did last week, their defense needs to start doing a better job of taking it away. UNC currently ranks next-to-last in the ACC with a minus-3 turnover margin. Miami, by contrast, is third in the conference at plus-3. “I don’t know what the answer is,” coach Larry Fedora said. “We created two turnovers the other night (against Virginia Tech), but we needed more.” The most frustrating aspect of that statistic for the Tar Heels is that just one year after tying for the league lead with 17 interceptions, their defense has yet to pick off a pass in 2016. They are the only FBS team without an interception this season. “It’s funny how turnovers sometimes come in droves and sometimes it’s a desert,” added defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. “But we’re hoping we can get our hands on some balls soon.” Back in the Hood UNC’s running game, which sputtered badly in the rain last week, figures to get a major pick-me-up in Miami this Saturday with the return of leading rusher Elijah Hood. The 6-foot, 230-pound junior, who missed the Virginia Tech loss with what is being reported as a concussion, is listed as probable against the Hurricanes. Although Hood’s replacement T.J. Logan had some moderate success while gaining 67 of his team’s 73 rushing yards, his speed and shiftiness were negated by poor field conditions that would have been better suited to Hood’s more powerful style. Hood’s presence in the backfield should go a long way toward improving the balance of the Tar Heels’ offense and taking some of the pressure off Trubisky by forcing the Hurricanes defense to respect play action more than the Hokies did. “He’s obviously a force to be reckoned with,” Fedora said of Hood.Pressure situation The Tar Heels’ defense will have its work cut out for it against an explosive Miami offense that ranks second in the ACC in scoring at 41.4 points per game. The task will become even greater if they’re not able to put pressure on the Hurricanes’ veteran quarterback Kaaya. Getting to Kaaya won’t be easy for two reasons. The first is that Miami has allowed only five sacks in its five games thus far, the second-lowest total in the league. The other is that the Tar Heels’ defensive front has nearly as many players listed on the injury report as the depth chart, with ends Dajaun Drennon and Tyler Powell and tackle Aaron Crawford all listed as “questionable” for the game. “I think his presence in the pocket is what sets him apart from a lot of the quarterbacks we’ve faced,” tackle Nazair Jones, one of the few defensive linemen not among the walking wounded, said of Kaaya. “His sticks in there, makes his reads and he delivers the ball. He’s just a playmaker.