UNC is set to take on Stanford in the Sun Bowl, so here are some storylines and predictions for the Tar Heels ahead of the game.
North Carolina will battle Stanford in the Sun Bowl on Friday, Dec. 30 at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, TX.
The Tar Heels (8-4, 5-3 ACC) did not make it back to the ACC title game, as Virginia Tech won the Coastal division and earned a matchup with Clemson. While it was a slightly disappointing year for Larry Fedora’s bunch, the Tar Heels earned a nice test against Stanford, which will be without star running back Christian McCaffrey. However, David Shaw’s squad still poses quite the challenge even without its star do-everything back.
UNC is 1-2 in bowl games under Fedora, with last year’s appearance in the Russell Athletic Bowl ending in a 49-38 Baylor win.
Star quarterback Mitch Trubisky has a chance to be a 2017 first-round draft pick if he chooses to leave UNC early. So while he prepares for his team’s clash with the Cardinal, the signal-caller is also dealing with the tough decision of coming back for his senior season or moving onto the pro level while his stock is very high.
The fourth-year junior has completed 68.9 percent of his throws for 3,468 yards with 28 touchdown passes while throwing just four interceptions this season. His accuracy and awareness in the pocket make him attractive to pro scouts. The fact that he could be one of the top signal-callers taken this year makes the decision that much more difficult, but he maintains that it has not been a distraction heading into this game. I’d expect a strong effort from a focused Trubisky, as he will protect the football en route to a 200-plus yard, two-touchdown performance.
Stopping the run
Even though McCaffrey will miss the game, UNC will have its hands full with the Cardinal ground game. So stopping the run and forcing quarterback Keller Chryst into mistakes will be crucial. Middle linebacker Andre Smith (the team’s top tackler) and safety Donnie Miles have been two of the better Tar Heel defenders on a unit that has been a bit up and down in 2016. UNC has allowed just 10 passing touchdowns this season, and only three of those have been completed to a wide receiver. The Tar Heels are No. 14 in the country in pass defense, allowing just 183 yards per game. But Bryce Love gained 664 yards on just 90 carries for the Cardinal, so you won’t see much dropoff from McCaffrey. Keeping a lid on Love will be essential, because UNC knows it has the advantage when Stanford is forced to throw the ball.
Second-half clamp down
Over the course of the last six games, Gene Chizik’s defense has allowed just 6.8 points per game in the second half. That’s pretty remarkable. I can envision the Cardinal taking a lead into the half after jumping out of the gate quickly, but expect that UNC defense to tighten up in the third and fourth quarters. The adjustments at the break have helped make this a dangerous second-half squad.
Quiet in the Hood
Running back Elijah Hood looked like his old self down the stretch, averaging almost 8.0 yards per carry in November. But it was announced that he will miss the game for what the team termed “medical reasons.” So he won’t even be in El Paso for the game. However, in a release sent out by the school, it was announced that he will not be declaring for the 2017 NFL Draft and will instead return to school.
Hood had 858 yards and eight touchdowns despite being hampered by injuries, and he was also a solid pass-catching option as well. Without him, UNC will rely on senior T.J. Logan, who gained 578 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.7 yards per carry. Even if Trubisky has another good game, which he should, Logan can give the Cardinal defense a lot of trouble.
It was a rough ending to the regular season for the Tar Heels, as Fedora’s squad looked very flat in the loss to rival NC State, which allowed the Wolfpack to claim a postseason berth. Trubisky has maintained that his focus is on this game and not the NFL Draft, but will other key Tar Heels who are likely future pros going to be motivated? Will UNC take a McCaffrey-less Stanford team lightly? How UNC looks early in the game may reveal just how focused and prepared they are for this matchup against the Cardinal.