Preparing for a quality opponent during a short week always provides unique challenges to a coaching staff. So much work to do in such a short window of time...
With that in mind, immediately following their 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech, North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora reached out to a few coaches for some advice on how to prepare his guys in a five day span before they kicked off against Virginia last night (which they won 37-13).
"The best advice I got from a majority of guys is just don't wear them out. You're going to think you need to keep getting repitition, and really it's more important that they're fresh." Fedora explained to the Herald Sun yesterday.
Coming off from a loss that looked more like a basketball score, a lot of coaching staffs would have to bite the bullet to take that kind of advice. Conventional coaching wisdom says that the more repititions you take at something (like defense), the better off you'll be. But, as coaches told Fedora, sometimes allowing your guys to play with fresh legs under them is just as (if not more) important.
Last night, the UNC defense came up big on a goal line stand to maintain their seven point lead, and then the offense took things over from there.
That was the story of the night. Both sides of the ball looked fresh for the Tar Heels, and that likely hinged on the decision that Fedora and his staff made to take their foot off the gas during practice this last week and sacrifice some repititions for fresh legs. The decision defintiely paid off as the staff collected their win number seven in their first season in Chapel Hill.
Two games dot the schedule tonight, the traditional Thursday night affair on ESPN and a special mid-week game in the Southland Conference. Let's get right to it.
North Carolina at Virginia (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Though it may have seemed impossible when the Cavaliers endured their six-game losing streak, Mike London's team is still in contention for a bowl game. Virginia bookended its half-season slide wth wins over Richmond and Penn State to open the year and defeats of N.C. State and Miami in the last two weeks. A win tonight and next week at Virginia Tech will send the Cavs to back-to-back bowls for the first time since 2004-05. Nevermind that Virginia hasn't beaten Virginia Tech since 2003, that's next week's problem. What does Virginia need to do to beat North Carolina?
A big issue for Mike London's team has been its disconnect between yards and points. The Cavs have gained the fifth-most yards in the ACC but scored the ninth-most points. Their defense has allowed the third-fewest yards in the conference but allowed the fifth-most points. Underlying that issue has been its problems with turnovers.Virginia possesses and even turnover margin (6-6) in their four wins and stand at a minus-12 (16-4) in their six losses. That minus-12 margin puts them in last place in the ACC and 112th in the nation in turnover margin.
Quarterback Michael Rocco returned to a regular spot in the line-up last week and threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in the 41-40 win over Miami. Virginia will need Rocco to remain hot and put pressure on a smarting North Carolina defense fresh off a 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels have also struggled away from home this season, winning only once in four tries. Tonight's game is in Charlottesville.
If nothing else, you should tune in to watch the masterful North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard. The sophomore leads the ACC and ranks eighth nationally with 126 rushing yards per game while simultaneously ranking fourth in the country in punt returns at nearly 18 yards per return. Bernard won the N.C. State game with a 74-yard punt return touchdown with 13 seconds to go to break a 35-35 tie. The combination of Bernard and quarterback Bryn Renner (270 yards per game, 20 touchdowns) will be a handful for Jim Reid's defense.
A bowl game is out of the picture for Larry Fedora's group in his first year at the helm, but at 6-4 he can still lead the Tar Heels to their first eight-win regular season since 2009.
Southeastern Louisiana at Nicholls State (7 p.m. ET)
Bragging rights in the River Bell Classic are on the line tonight as Ron Roberts' first season at the helm of Southeastern Louisiana concludes in Thibodaux, La., against Charlie Stubbs and Nicholls State. At 1-8 overall and 0-6 in the Southland Conference, 2012 has been a trying season for Nicholls State but part of that can be salvaged if the Colonels can extend their home winning streak in the River Bell Classic to six games. The 2010 meeting came down to a late two-point conversion when Nicholls State batted down a Southeastern Louisiana pass to preserve a 27-25 win.
A win tonight for Southeastern Louisiana means the Lions will finish in third place in the Southland in Roberts' first year. Roberts has impressively put the Lions near the top of the standings despite ranking at the bottom of the Southland Conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Luckily for Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State is seventh among eight teams in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense.
In North Carolina high school playoff action over the weekend, Davidson Day high school outlasted Harrells Christian in a scoring frenzy that would make even Oregon jealous.
Davidson ended up winning 104-80, and quarterback Will Grier set the national passing yardage record with 837 yards through the air to go along with his 10 touchdowns (which ties the national record). Grier has thrown 64 touchdowns on the season.
Harrels Christian running back running back Russell Washington also put up some ridiculous numbers, carrying the ball 46 times for 429 yards and 8 touchdowns. The eight touchdowns in a game was good enough to tie for fourth nationally.
The game lasted nearly four hours (the final buzzer sounded around midnight) and Davidson Day scored on all but one of their possessions, while never leading by more than 24 points. After the game Davidson Day head coach Chad Grier (Will's father) told NewsObserver.com "I sure didn't come in with a plan for us to score 104 points, and I sure as heck didn't have a plan to give up 80."
It's rare to feel a sense of both accomplishment and disappointment after a game, but the bottom line is that a win in the playoffs means you're fortunate enough to be playing next week.
Here's an interesting note. Of the 26 NBA teams that played on that same Friday night, 20 of them failed to put up more points than Davidson Day did. Impressive job.
When there's 25 seconds left in the game and you're getting ready to send your punt unit onto the field with with the game tied up, most coaches would tell their punter to kick the ball out of bounds and not allow the nation's top punt returner a chance to win the game.
That's not what NC State did. Instead, they kicked the ball deep to the dangerous Giovani Bernard with less than 30 seconds left and Bernard made them pay. The return team set up some great blocks to spring him free.
Following the game winning return, Bernard solidified his spot as one of the most feared return men in the country. He averages 21 yards per return and has taken two touchdowns back for six in just twelve attempts. For his efforts, North Carolina was named the FootballScoop Special Teams Unit of the Week.
Let these videos serve as a warning to the teams that remain on North Carolina's schedule (Georgia Tech, Virginia and Maryland), if the game is on the line, keep the ball out of Giovani Bernard's hands (he also ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game).
Plenty mof great performances were turned in throughout the country yesterday, but these coaches' work stood above the rest to win our Coaches of the Week.
Head Coach of the Week - Mark Richt, Georgia: Considering the way his team entered Saturday's game, and the way Georgia's 17-9 win over Florida was played (nine turnovers, 24 penalties), Mark Richt must feel like Andy Dufresne after he crawled through Shawshank's sewer system and came out clean on the other side. Georgia entered Saturday on a three-game stretch in which, sandwiched around a 28-point loss to South Carolina, the Bulldogs had beaten Tennessee and Kentucky (combined SEC wins: zero) by a total of 12 points. None of that mattered, however, as Richt's team managed to win a game in which it threw three first half interceptions, committed 14 penalties, missed a field goal and nullified a successful onside kick with an offsides flag. The Bulldogs won by forcing six turnovers of their own, erasing Florida's power running game (two yards per carry on 41 attempts) and bookending the scoring with opportunitstic touchdown drives.
Georgia now stands in a position where wins over Ole Miss and Auburn (combined SEC wins: two) will send the Bulldogs to Atlanta in early December for the second year in a row.
Offensive Staff of the Week - Kent State: The Golden Flashes not only got their first win over an AP Top 25 opponent in school history on Saturday, they did it going away by smashing Rutgers, 35-23. Rutgers came into Saturday surrendering just 11.3 points per game, a mark which Darrell Hazell's team bested by the 13:21 mark of the second quarter. Offensive coordinator Brian Rock and offensive line coach Chris Bache's game plan was simple - just do what you do. For the fourth time this season the Golden Flashes topped 200 rushing yards, carrying 50 times for 224 yards and achieving 14 first downs by rush. Mixed with seven turnovers forced by the Kent State defense, Hazell's team was able to occupy the ball for more than 37 minutes on Saturday.
"We came on the road against a very tough opponent," Hazell said. "We knew they were going to be tough, and they did a great job prior to playing us. I thought our kids prepared like crazy this week." The win gives Kent State its first six-game winning streak in 72 years and moves Hazell's squad one step closer to its first bowl appearance since 1972.
Defensive Staff of the Week - Notre Dame: This isn't the first time Bob Diaco and co. have won the Defensive Staff of the Week in FootballScoop's short history of weekly coaching awards, and if the Fighting Irish continue to play like they did Saturday night it certainly won't be the last. Once again Notre Dame forced an opponent into its worst offensive outing of the season by way of sure tackling, stifling red zone defense and timely turnovers. All three ingredients were prevalent in Notre Dame's 30-13 win over Oklahoma. The Irish secondary surrendered the short stuff to the Oklahoma passing game but never let anything get behind them and limited yards after the catch. "We were going to give up yards to keep the points down," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We could not let the points get out of reach for us. This was the first time we showed we could … put some points on the board. But we could not have won this football game if the points got up in the numbers that were probably out of reach for our offense."
As a result, Oklahoma threw for 356 yards but needed 51 attempts to get there. Notre Dame shut down the OU running game, holding the Sooners to 15 yards on 24 carries, in limiting them to season lows in points, rushing yards and total yards. Notre Dame forced field goals in two of Oklahoma's three red zone trips and, protecting a 20-13 lead late in the fourth quarter, produced a timely interception when linebacker Manti Te'o snagged a deflected ball at the Oklahoma 45-yard line. Six plays later Notre Dame put the game out of reach with a 46-yard field goal.
Special Teams Staff of the Week - North Carolina: It's unclear why N.C. State punted to Giovani Bernard, the nation's leading punt returner, with the game tied 35-35 in the waning seconds before overtime. What is clear is that overtime never happened because Bernard took the punt 74 yards for a score to give North Carolina a 43-35 win. The return was much more than just Bernard - watch below how good his blocking is as he runs behind a wall down the right sideline. But before Bernard ever had a chance to win the game, Tar Heels kicker Casey Barth had to hit a 34-yard field goal with 1:24 left to play to knot the score at 35-35 in the first place. North Carolina punter Thomas Hibbard also had an excellent day with nine punts for a net average of 41.1 yards with a long of 60 and three kicks pinned inside the 20-yard line.
Call of the Week - Mack Brown and Bryan Harsin, Texas: Texas was a quarter away from being the first Big 12 team to lose to Kansas since 2010, and the first current Big 12 team to fall to the Jayhawks since Iowa State in 2009, when Brown inserted backup quarterback Case McCoy to spark the Longhorns to a 21-17 win. McCoy didn't do much in his first drive as Texas ran all nine plays of its 84-yard drive to tie the game at 14-14 with 9:41 to go. After Kansas used a seven-minute drive to reclaim the lead at 17-14, McCoy came alive. He hit five passes in a row, including an 18-yard gain on fourth-and-six and a 39-yard connection to get Texas to the KU three-yard line, before Harsin dialed up a play-action lob where McCoy found tight end D.J. Grant alone in the corner of the end zone on third-and-goal with 12 seconds to play to seal the win.
North Carolina has lost five straight games to N.C. State.
Larry Fedora, in his first year as head coach of the Tar Heels, is keenly aware of this fact.
Fedora said that “since my first handshake when I took the job" he has known the importance of North Carolina's losing streak to its in-state rival, and the urgency to end it. With the Wolfpack coming to Chapel Hill on Saturday, Fedora made sure his players remembered the way the last handful of meetings have gone.
According to the News & Observer, "(UNC players) went into their locker room and found N.C. State paraphernalia everywhere. There were red and white streamers and balloons. Pictures of N.C. State players celebrating after a victory. Signs with a hand on them that said, 'Five in a row.' There were signs with N.C. State’s logo and the words, 'Our State,' plastered on them."
Fedora later downplayed the decorations. "I don't know if that's a big deal or not," he said. "We do things to motivate our players, I'm sure just like everybody else does."
“I took some of the stuff and put it up in my locker, just as a reminder that they have beat us five consecutive times,” said senior offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper. “I don’t want to end my senior season with that on my record.”
North Carolina competes this season under NCAA sanctions, meaning the 5-3 Tar Heels (2-2 in the ACC) are ineligible for the ACC Championship and will not play in a bowl game. With only four games left in the season, a date with the Wolfpack is the biggest game left on the Tar Heels' schedule.
Fedora's team can play the role of spoiler. At 2-1 in the ACC, N.C. State sits in the thick of Atlantic Division standings as one of four teams with one conference loss.
After popping balloons in the locker room, Fedora's team hopes to pop a losing streak on the field this Saturday.