UNC Beat: Beautiful Week for the Triangle

This is a bizarre, yet absolutely beautiful, week for Triangle sports fans.

Normally, the middle of October brings cooler weather   It also often brings disappointment for at least one of the local football fan bases.  At this point last season, North Carolina, NC State, and Duke had a combined 2-3 record in ACC play.  NC State had been dismantled by Cincinnati and lost both of its conference games, Duke had opened the season with a loss to Richmond, and North Carolina was dealing with the weekly soap opera of an NCAA investigation.

Okay, so some things haven’t changed, but a lot of things have. Optimism abounds, as all three of the Triangle schools are coming off huge victories.  Duke has strung together four straight wins, including back-to-back games against ACC opponents Wake Forest and Virginia, despite (or thanks in part to?) an injury to starting quarterback Sean Renfree. North Carolina knocked off divisional foe Virginia Tech for only the second time since the Hokies joined the ACC in 2004.  And NC State trumped them all, shocking Florida State with a come-from-behind 17-16 victory under the lights at Carter-Finley Stadium Saturday night.

It seems a little strange, with Midnight Madness just a couple of days away, that the “When does basketball start?” jokes have largely been kept to a minimum on Tobacco Road, thanks to these football successes.  Sure, fans will pack the Smith Center, Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the RBC Center PNC Arena to unofficially kick off the basketball season this Friday, but, you know, this football thing ain’t half bad, either.

The question, therefore, is how long can these three teams continue their runs?  For North Carolina, doing so will require running the gauntlet against their Triangle rivals starting in two weeks.  The Tar Heels will travel to Wallace Wade Stadium on October 20 for a 7:00 contest – Yes, the North Carolina-Duke football game will be a primetime matchup.  One week later, they will host NC State, looking for their first win against the Wolfpack since a 3-9 season in 2006, back when $2.23 would get you a gallon of gas for your car.

However, the Tar Heels can’t afford to start looking ahead to these big-time matchups.  Before they can face their rivals, North Carolina will travel to Miami to take on the Hurricanes.  Miami, like Duke, has not lost an ACC game to date, winning close and exciting games against Boston College, Georgia Tech, and NC State.  Both the Boston College and Georgia Tech wins involved falling behind early, while the NC State victory came after blowing a 23-7 advantage, so no lead will be safe this Saturday at Sun Life Stadium.

Miami will also be entering the game with a chip on their shoulder, after a 41-3 thrashing at Soldier Field against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  Like North Carolina, Miami struggled against out-of-conference opponents from the power conferences, also losing 52-13 to Kansas State.  Their conference wins should be enough to establish that they are the team to beat in the Coastal Division for now, but they will need to erase any doubt by knocking off the Tar Heels before they face their own in-state conference rival next week, Florida State.

Giovani Bernard scores a 62 yard touchdown against Virginia Tech

That said, North Carolina does have one significant advantage in this contest which could be the difference-maker.  Miami’s defense allows over 250 yards rushing per game.  Last week, the Fighting Irish rushed for 376 yards on the Hurricanes.  Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard rushed for 262 yards on 26 carries against Virginia Tech.  Those numbers could spell bad times ahead for Miami.

PRESEASON MUSINGS: Yep, the UNC Beat, as far as I can tell, will be the first to start talking basketball here at InsideTheACC.com.  I have to fulfill that basketball school stereotype somehow, even without the assistance of the football team.

Late Night With Roy is Friday night, signaling the effective beginning of basketball season on the college landscape.  This season presents plenty of questions and not a whole lot of answers for the Tar Heels.  With the losses of Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller, it will be up to a new cast of characters to take the reins of the team.  Will James Michael McAdoo continue his form from the conclusion of 2011-12?  Can Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald return from their injuries and play effectively in more prominent roles?  Does introducing P.J. Hairston to the starting lineup increase the likelihood of #PJBeShootin trending on Twitter?  How will freshmen Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson, and Joel James contribute?

My guesses? James Michael McAdoo will shine, as well as Dexter Strickland, who always played with more confidence at the point and will now get more opportunities there with Marshall gone.  #PJBeShootin could trend worldwide at one point, perhaps if there is a game like last year’s Florida State contest where UNC trails marginally at halftime and the offense (or just P.J.) comes out jacking threes instead of running plays.  As for the rest, if there’s anything we’ve learned from Harrison Barnes, is to not put too much expectation on a kid before you actually see him play against other college players.

ZACH’S THREE STARS

First Star – Giovani Bernard: I really feel bad and lazy about just throwing Gio in here every week, but he’s really really good.  Maybe it should just be assumed he gets a star moving forward?

Second Star – Defense: Once again, pressure on the quarterback was a recipe for success for the Tar Heels. While Logan Thomas was only sacked once, he was forced to rush throws on many occasions, including an interception to Tim Scott.  North Carolina also broke up nine pass plays in the back seven, further contributing to Virginia Tech’s offensive frustrations.

Third Star – Sean Tapley: Tapley found the end zone twice against the Hokies. The second touchdown, a 19-yard pass from Bryn Renner, was pretty tame in comparison to his 94-yard kickoff return to tie the game at 7-7 following a Logan Thomas 13-yard read option run up the gut. The kickoff return was the first the Hokies had given up since 1993, an NCAA-leading streak of 237 games.

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Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans is a student at the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC. Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements. For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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