Five questions to ponder before kickoff


UNC coach Larry Fedora would just as soon forget his team's last trip to ECU in 2014 (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

  Larry Fedora said in a broadcast interview this week that he doesn’t remember what happened the last time he took his North Carolina football team to Greenville to play East Carolina.

  He’s kidding, of course.

  The Tar Heels’ coach only wishes he could really wipe away the memory of the 70-41 drubbing his team absorbed at the hands of the Pirates back in 2014. Instead, he’ll get a chance to make a new memory and perhaps, get himself off the hot seat for awhile when UNC returns to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this afternoon for a showdown with its in-state rival from the East.

  It’s an important game for both teams as each looks to rebound from opening week losses.

  And it’s going to be a hot one, just as it will be for games throughout the state.

  So whichever stadium you’re at, make sure to hydrate, wear a hat and try your best to find some shade. Until then, here are five questions about this weekend’s games to think about and consider:

1, Will an in-state ACC rival coming to Greenville bring out the best in ECU again?

  The Pirates don’t get nearly as much attention or the respect as their UNC System cousins North Carolina and NC State, so it’s understandable that they have extra motivation anytime they get a shot at playing either the Tar Heels or Wolfpack. Especially when those teams come to Greenville to play. They’re opportunities ECU has taken full advantage of lately, with four straight wins over in-state ACC teams — including the aforementioned 70-burger it put on UNC four years ago.

  As if it didn’t already have enough incentive, the Pirates can take some from the oddsmakers that have established them as a 16½-point underdog against the Tar Heels.

  All of that bodes well for coach Scottie Montgomery’s team today. So does the fact that despite a second straight opening game loss to an FCS opponent, the Pirates didn’t play as badly as it might seem in last week’s weather delayed loss to NC A&T. ECU outgained the Aggies by a wide margin and showed considerable improvement on defense. If not for two red zone turnovers — one of which was a 100-yard pick six — it easily could have won the game.

2, Will the Tar Heels have any carryover effect from their strong fourth quarter at Cal?

  UNC managed just 38 yards of offense in the first half of its season opening loss. Of the 28 offensive plays it ran over those 30 minutes of futility, 16 of them either lost yardage or gained nothing. Things didn’t get much better in the third quarter, as Cal, aided by four Nathan Elliott interceptions, rolled out to a 24-3 lead.

  How bad was the Tar Heels’ offense? Coordinator Chris Kapilovic summed it up in just one word.

 “Pitiful,” he said after practice earlier this week.

 “Three and outs mounted and you saw some guys panic on the sideline. And it was kind of alarming,” Kapilovic said. “We got them in at halftime and it wasn’t about some big adjustments, it was about settling them down and understanding what needs to be done and once they kind of calmed down and were doing routine plays like that are capable of, we started to do some positive things. It was an embarrassment.”

  UNC salvaged a measure of pride by gaining 182 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make the final score respectable. It also potentially created some momentum upon which the Tar Heels can build against ECU today. For that to happen, their offensive linemen are going to have to do a better job of blocking, Elliott is going to have to do a better job of throwing it to the right team and their defense is going to have to find a way to replace end Malik Carney — UNC’s best player against Cal who will begin his four-game Shoegate suspension this week.

3, Will NC State struggle to put away another lesser opponent?

  It’s generally accepted that a team’s biggest improvement comes between the first and second weeks of a season. That’s good news for the Wolfpack, which left itself plenty of room to grow with its performance in last Saturday’s 24-13 win against James Madison.

  It’s not as if coach Dave Doeren’s team was terrible against the Dukes. Ryan Finley and his talented stable of receivers lived up to their preseason hype by accounting for 309 yards and two touchdowns through the air. And State’s rebuilt defense played a generally solid game a much better opponent than most realize.

  The Wolfpack still needs to generate a more effective ground game while doing a better job of stopping the run. It may also still have some placekicking issues to work out.

  But this week’s opponent Georgia State should be just the kind of team that will allow State to clean up some of its loose ends before getting its first real test of the season next Saturday against West Virginia. Despite being a FBS program, the Panthers aren’t nearly as good or talented as FCS power JMU. They also don’t have a positive track record against Power 5 teams, having lost all nine such matchups in their short history.

  GSU had to come from behind to beat Kennesaw State 24-20 in its opener. Given the oppressive heat that’s expected for the 12:30 p.m. start, it would behoove State to take care of business early and often so that its starters won’t have to play the entire game, get worn down and risk injury.

4, Can Duke’s young offensive line protect QB Daniel Jones against a physical Northwestern defense?

  The most pressing issue facing the Blue Devils heading into the season was an offensive line that lost three starters from a year ago. It’s a group that acquitted itself well in last week’s opener against Army. With new starters Christian Harris at left tackle, right tackle Robert Kraeling and right guard Rakavius Chambers, and holdover Zach Harmon shifting from guard to center, the line allowed only one sack and did not commit a holding penalty in helping their team roll up 381 yards of total offense while averaging better than five yards per rush.

  As encouraging as that performance was, it was only a warmup for the test Duke will face on the road at Northwestern today. The Wildcats are a much bigger, more physical team than the Golden Knights and will present a much greater challenge, especially playing in front of their home crowd.

  It doesn’t really matter how experienced and efficient QB Daniel Jones might be. If he doesn’t have time to look downfield and find open receivers, he’s not going to be effective and the Blue Devils are going to have a hard time winning. How much time he gets will depend on the play of the big guys protecting him up front.

5, What will Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman do for an encore?

  The true freshman quarterback went 31 of 51 for 378 yards in last week’s overtime win at Tulane, school records for a first-time starter. Even more impressive than the raw numbers was the poise Hartman showed in bouncing back from a near-disastrous red zone interception to lead his team to the victory.

  The youngster should have an opportunity to build on that performance against an FCS opponent in his home debut.

  While the game itself doesn’t figure to be much of a contest, it’s an important one for Hartman and the Deacons with their ACC opener against Boston College looming only five days later. Of particular concern for coach Dave Clawson’s team is regaining chemistry on a reshuffled offensive line that will be without starting left tackle Justin Herron, who suffered a season ending knee injury in the opener.

  That’s all for this week. Enjoy the games! And stay cool!!