Another hurricane has come and gone through our state. But when it comes to football, Saturday’s action is really just the calm before the storm with NC State taking the week off in preparation for its epic Atlantic Division showdown at Clemson on Oct. 20.
Wake Forest also has an open date, making for a light schedule among North Carolina’s FBS programs. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some intriguing storylines to hold our attention, especially with quarterback dramas brewing in both Chapel Hill and Greenville.
So as we wait for the action to begin and the quarterback decisions to be revealed, here are five questions to think about and consider:
1, Is this the start of the Cade Fortin era at UNC?
The best quarterback at Kenan Stadium tonight won’t be on the field for either the Tar Heels or Virginia Tech. That would be Kelly Bryant, formerly of Clemson, who will be in Chapel Hill kicking the tires on a possible graduate transfer to UNC next season. In the meantime, coach Larry Fedora is running out of options to lead his sputtering offense now.
Chazz Surratt, who was supposed to be the answer to the problem, is now lost for the season with a wrist injury suffered during his dismal debut at Miami 10 days ago. Nathan Elliott, the Tar Heels’ starter in the first four games, has completed less than 40 percent of his passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. That leaves Cade Fortin as the next man up.
Indications are that the true freshman will see significant action against the Hokies and that he could very well start. While his only action to date has been the final drive in a Week 2 loss at East Carolina, in which he completed 3 of 6 passes for 15 yards, Fedora said Wednesday that he wouldn’t put Fortin in if he wasn’t confident he could do the job. Still, there are better situations to be thrown into than against a defense coached by Tech coordinator Bud Foster.
If there’s one thing UNC has going for it, it’s that this Hokies defense isn’t as stout as most in the past, as Old Dominion can attest. The Tar Heels have also had an extra week to prepare for the game, a situation that produced their best effort and only win of the season against Pittsburgh the last time it happened because of Hurricane Florence.
If Fortin plays well, today could be the start of a new era for UNC football. If not, there’s always another true freshman, Jace Ruder, available until Bryant makes his decision about next season.
2, Can Duke’s defense continue its mastery of the triple option?
The Yellow Jackets once again lead the nation in rushing offense with an average of 373 yards per game and 6.64 yards per carry. They’ve scored 29 touchdowns on the ground through five games and have scored better than 60 points in each of the last two weeks. That would present a daunting challenge for most opposing defenses.
But not the Blue Devils.
Whether it’s the familiarity of playing Tech every year as a member of the Coastal Division or the coaching prowess of David Cutcliffe and his staff, the Blue Devils seem to have unlocked the secret to stopping — or at least limiting — the triple option. They’ve won three of their last four meetings with the Yellow Jackets, holding them under 300 yards rushing in each of the victories. And they’ve already had success against the triple option this season by beating Army in the season opener back on Sept. 1. The Black Knights, by the way, are third in the nation in rushing at 308 yards per game. They managed only 168 yards in their 34-14 loss to the Blue Devils.
For the season, Duke is allowing an average of just 122.8 rushing yards. Although scheme has something to do with that, it also doesn’t hurt that it features three of the top 10 tacklers in the ACC in safety Dylan Singleton and linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys.
3, Was ECU’s meltdown at Temple last week an anomaly or the beginning of the end for Scottie Montgomery?
Montgomery seemed well on his way to saving his job after that dramatic come-from-behind win against Old Dominion that evened the Pirates’ record at 2-2 two weeks ago. Then came last Saturday’s 49-6 disaster at Temple, a performance in which all the progress the third-year coach and his program had seemed to make over the first four games of the season got thrown out the window.
It wasn’t necessarily that ECU lost the game, since it has yet to beat Temple in five tries since joining the American Athletic Conference. Rather, it was how the Pirates lost. They looked timid and unprepared while getting dominated in all three phases of the game. They fell behind 28-0 early and never gave a hint of competitiveness in a loss that looked, both aesthetically and on the stat sheet, hauntingly familiar to one of last year’s many drubbings.
Montgomery immediately proclaimed the game to be a momentary hiccup than a complete regression. He vowed that his team will show “a lot of growth between now and next Saturday.” Then he reopened the competition for his quarterback position between incumbent starter Reid Herring, change-of-pace freshman Holton Ahlers and highly-touted-but-seldom-used redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi.
Whoever Montgomery decides to go with, he’ll have his hands full against potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Ed Oliver and a Houston team that beat ECU 52-27 a year ago. It might be too tall a task to expect ECU to bounce back and beat the Cougars tonight. But it would certainly help Montgomery’s chances if it does show “a lot of growth” and gives a better accounting of itself than it did at Temple last week.
4, Can a group of freshmen help make for a happy homecoming at Charlotte?
Homecoming is a time in which the alumni return back to campus to nostalgically relive their college days and watch the old alma mater play a little football. At Charlotte, today, the focus will at least equally be on some players that haven’t been on campus for very long.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Reynolds and his two top receiving targets — redshirt freshman Victor Tucker and true freshman Rico Arnold, have been major driving forces on 49ers’ road back to respectability after last year’s 1-11 record. Reynolds has passed for more than 200 yards three times already this season. Tucker has recorded two 100-yard receiving games while Arnold added another two weeks ago in a loss at UAB. A third rookie, freshman kicker Jonathan Cruz, is 8 of 9 on field goals this season, including a 54-yarder against Appalachian State that is the longest in Conference USA this season.
Their efforts, along with veterans such as running back Benny LeMay and safety Ben DeLuca, have Charlotte off to a 2-3 start heading into today’s homecoming game against Western Kentucky. Coming off an open week against a Hilltoppers team that is 1-4 and undecided on three quarterback options to lead their struggling offense, this is a game the 49ers have a legitimate shot at winning.
5, Is Campbell ready for its Big South debut?
Like Charlotte, Campbell is off to a promising start thanks to the infusion of some new talent into the lineup on both sides of the ball. The Camels are 5-1 and full of confidence in their first season as a scholarship program as they prepare for their Big South Conference debut at Monmouth next Saturday.
Coach Mike Minter and his team have been waiting over a year for this game and are anxious to find out how far they’ve come and how far they still have to go to be competitive as this higher level of FCS football. As good as it has looked thus far, Campbell has yet to beat an opponent of Monmouth’s caliber yet this season. The only game the Camels have played this season against comparable competition was against Coastal Carolina, which handed them a 51-28 defeat for their only loss to date.
Monmouth might only be 3-2 this season, but it was an FCS playoff team a year ago and put 54 points up on Wagner in its most recent game two weeks ago. Though Campbell might experience some early growing pains on its steady climb up the college football ladder, you have to start somewhere. It’s a journey that officially begins next week.
“There’s been a lot of excitement around the program for the last couple of years about this whole Big South transition. There’s been a lot of buzz about what we want to do and what we expect to do,” sophomore quarterback Daniel Smith said. “To have the kind of early season success going into conference play is really exciting, because we feel we can come in and immediately be contenders for the conference.”
That’s all for this week. Enjoy the games!