Game Preview: Rutgers

In less than 24 hours the Tar Heels will be in Pisctaway to Rutgers (the live blog will be right on this here website), their first FBS opponent of the year. As weird as the McNeese State experience was, we learned very little about htis team in the opener. Tomorrow, we will get our first real look at the 2008 Heels.

Why This Game Is Important: While it doesn’t have the importance of conference, games, a win against Rutgers would be a big boost for both team and fan morale after stumbling out of the gates against McNeese State. it’s a small barometer of Carolina’s progress, both as a team and as a program. The Tar Heels have not won a game outside their home state since 2002. (Ironically, that was a year in which the team went winless in Kenan Stadium). It’s also our first game against an FBS team this season, and it’s in front of a national audience. A win would bring the Heels to their first 2-0 start and opening victory against an FBS rival since 2000, when UNC beat Tulsa and Wake Forest that year before things fell apart in ACC play. It will also give us a much more accurate measure of where this team stands.

Not so fond memories.

When We Last Met: The Scarlet Knights came into Chapel Hill to open the 2006 season, and won an ugly 21-16 contest behind the legs of Ray Rice, who had 201 yards and three touchdowns in the win. I happened to be in the stands for that game, cautiously optimistic that, with a solid defense from 2005 and a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti, the Heels stood a good chance of going bowling. But the Heels were a huge disappointment in this game; not because they lost, but because of the fundamental errors the team made throughout the game, from the turnovers to the penalties to the missed assignments. I was holding out hope that John Bunting could succeed at Carolina at the beginning of that season. I truly wanted to see him succeed for the team he loved. But of all the disappointments during his time in Chapel Hill, that was I game I can point to that made me lose faith, that finally opened my eyes to the cruel reality that the Bunting era just wasn’t going to work out. Watching that game convinced me that change was necessary.

So, while the result of that game was painful, it may have ultimately paved the way for Butch Davis to come here. So there’s that.

Key Players For Rutgers:

1. Kordell Young. With the departue of Ray Rice, it will be necessary for the Scarlet Knights to establish a runnning game to supplement the well-established passing attack. It’s arguable that for each of the last two seasons, the passing game has fed off the success of the running game. To do the opposite is far more difficult, but neither of these teams seem to have a particularly strong gorund attack. Young had 94 yards on 26 carries in his first game, so he’ll shoulder the responsibility angainst UNC.

2. Mike Teel. Rutgers fans should not be concerned about Tiquan Underwood or Kenny Britt. Even though Fresno State gave up only 7 points, both Rutgers wide receivers are still on pace to hit 1,000 yards receiving. The problem that Rutgers had against Frenso State was their inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities. Part of that might be the reduced running game, but Teel’s 51.4 % completion rate and two interceptions did not help. A vastly imporved performance is a prerequisite for the Scarlet Knights.

3. The defensive line. The experienced back seven should hold their own in this game. The big defensive question mark is at the line of scrimmage. Rutgers lost three of their four starting lineman from 2007, when they were 66th in Division FBS against the run. If the Knights can’t control the line of scrimmage and prevent Carolina from establishing the run, they will be in serious trouble.

What Carolina Must Do to Win:

Above all, the Tar Heels must control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. With the possible exceptions of Greg LIttle and Jordan Hemby, I can’t point to anyone at skill positions who truly played badly in the opener against McNeese State. Every sign points to an inability for the offensive line to make room for runners, and for the defensive line to fluster the quarterback. After their performance against the spread option, perhaps we’ll se a more attack-minded defense when playing a more conventional styled offense.

Prediction: Whomever wins this game will probably win ugly. In the hopes that close losses in 2007 will translate to close wins in 2008, I’ll say that the Tar Heels win by a nose.