UNC hosts East Carolina on Saturday (12:30, ACC Network) looking to improve its record to 2-2. The Tar Heels beat the Pirates (2-1, 1-0 Conference USA) 27-6 in last year's matchup.
A.J. Blue and the Tar Heels need to improve their running game to get UNC's offense back on track.
Tar Heels' Advantage
North Carolina’s bandit duo of Norkeithus Otis and Darius Lipford has caused fits for opposing offenses throughout the first three games. The two have combined for 7.5 tackles for losses and five sacks. East Carolina’s offensive line is allowing four sacks per game, and Virginia Tech racked up seven of them in the Pirates’ last contest. UNC’s defense has been steady since the second quarter of the season at South Carolina, thanks largely to the play of Otis and Lipford. If those two can pressure ECU quarterback Shane Carden, the rest of the defense has the potential to capitalize on his mistakes.
The Pirates have talent and experience on the offensive side of the ball. Carden has a firm grasp of ECU’s spread offense in his second season as a starter, and he’s proven the ability to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers at receiver. Carden’s favorite target is Justin Hardy, who is one of the most prolific receivers in the country. Hardy already has more than 250 receiving yards on the year, and he’s a home run threat anytime a pass is thrown his direction. UNC had 21 missed tackles against Georgia Tech. Such mistakes against ECU’s spread could spell a number of big plays.
Tar Heels' Concern
UNC’s offense hasn’t been anemic by any means, but it hasn’t been nearly as potent as last year’s unit. Most of that blame can be placed on the running game, where a three-headed running back committee and an unseasoned offensive line have yet to click together. Some of it can be shifted to quarterback Bryn Renner, too, whose efficiency has dropped from 150.8 in 2012 to 127.6 this year. This game could become a shoot out, and UNC’s offense needs to be ready to swing back.
While ECU’s spread has been effective against most opponents, UNC forcefully shut it down in this game last season. The Tar Heels held the Pirates to 233 yards and zero touchdowns. ECU only converted five of 16 third downs and had to settle for field goals in both its trips to the red zone. Cornerback Jabari Price had eight tackles – including a sack – and held Hardy to just 25 yards on four catches. Most of the Pirates’ same personnel is still there from last season.
Player to watch: Wide receiver Justin Hardy
Don’t let the fact that East Carolina is a non-automatic qualifying school fool you – Justin Hardy is one of the best receivers North Carolina will face all season. The 6-0, 186-pound junior has posted some absurd numbers in his three years at ECU. He’s third among active receivers in receptions per game – 6.85 per game through 26 contests – and has caught a touchdown pass in 15 of ECU’s last 21 games.
Hardy tallied 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns from the inside receiver slot last season to land himself on the first-team All-Conference USA list. He’s picked up right where he left off, hauling in 16 catches for 191 yards in the Pirates’ season opener against Old Dominion. Through three games this year, he’s averaging 86 yards per game and has one touchdown.
If the Pirates are going to escape Chapel Hill with a victory, they’ll need Hardy at his best. Last season against UNC, he was held to 25 yards on four catches, and ECU’s offense was accordingly kept out of the end zone all day.
Hardy isn’t a traditional deep threat, but he excels at taking short passes up the middle for long yardage. He’ll likely draw double coverage for most of the game, so the rest of UNC’s secondary will have to step up against a receiving corps that has talent at all four positions.
Cornerback Jabari Price was instrumental in slowing down ECU's Justin Hardy last year.
Five more to keep an eye on
Shane Carden, quarterback
The junior quarterback has been a surgeon in ECU’s spread attack. He’s averaging 265.3 yards per game, but, more impressively, he’s completing 74.5 percent of his passes and boasts an efficiency rating of 153.8. Carden has thrown eight touchdowns to three interceptions.
Vintavious Cooper, running back
Cooper’s quest to repeat his 1,000-yard campaign from a season ago has gotten off to a slow start, but he’s still a dangerous, versatile weapon in ECU’s offense. He’s averaging 53.7 yards on the ground per game, and he’s the Pirates’ second-leading receiver with 12 catches for 115 yards.
Davon Grayson, wide receiver
Grayson’s true freshman season couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start. He’s established himself as a legitimate red zone target, catching four touchdown passes in his first three career games. He earned a starting job right away despite a loaded Pirate receiving corps.
Derrell Johnson, linebacker
Johnson just might be the best linebacker in Conference USA this year. The all-conference performer leads ECU with 24 tackles from the outside linebacker spot in the Pirates’ 3-4 scheme. He also has two tackles for losses, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries to his name.
Damon Magazu, safety
A three-year starter at safety, Magazu provides leadership and consistency in the Pirates’ secondary. He’s racked up 22 tackles through the first three games, pushing him in the right direction to fulfilling his second-team preseason all-conference billing.
Prediction: North Carolina 35, East Carolina 20