For the second time in 125 years of football, Carolina will host a Thursday night game for the benefit of national television when Miami comes to Chapel Hill Thursday at 7:45 p.m. The game is billed as “Zero Dark Thursday” and will feature the 1-4 Tar Heels facing a tremendous challenge against the 5-0 and 10th-ranked Hurricanes.
Carolina’s first ESPN game came in 2009 when the Tar Heels had a sizeable third-quarter lead over Florida State, only to watch the Seminoles storm from behind for a 30-27 win.
“We’ve got the stage to ourselves,” Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora says. “We’re the only game and anyone watching football that night will be watching us. It’s a great opportunity for our team, our university and our town.”
Senior QB Bryn Renner will return as the starter after missing the Virginia Tech game 10 days ago with an ankle injury. But sophomore Marquise Williams has earned the opportunity for an expanded role in the offense following a solid game against Tech.
“Quise communicated well, managed the game well, sat in the pocket better than I thought he would,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson says. “I thought he’d try to escape a little sooner if he got pressured but he stood in, went through his progressions and made some good throws. He made one really bad mistake, the interception at the end of the first half when he should have checked down. You’d like to have that one back.
“The way he handled himself and the dynamic he brings to the game, he’ll help us. We’ll integrate him into the game. He creates some issues for the defense running the ball that we don’t get from Bryn.”
The Hurricanes are second in the ACC in scoring offense at 45.2 points a game and third in scoring defense, allowing just 16 a game. Quarterback Stephen Morris and tailback Duke Johnson are their key offensive threats, Johnson rushing for 114 yards a game and Morris hitting 62 percent of his passes for 190 yards a game.
Last year, Carolina rode the 177 yards rushing from Gio Bernard to an 18-14 win in Miami.
“Their defense is playing better than a year ago,” Anderson says. “Obviously confidence breeds confidence, and they have it. They’re scoring a lot of points on offense, which takes pressure off the defense. The defense is strong, physical, huge up front. In fact, they’re big everywhere—safety, corner. They want them that way, they gravitate to big guys.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning sees a swift and stout Hurricane offense with multiple weapons.
“They have some rockets at receiver and running back,” Koenning says. “The offensive line improved a lot. Obviously the quarterback is doing a much better job. Last year they had about 10 or 12 plays they ran. Now he can do a lot more. The O-line is big and physical and those guys have been just mauling people. And they’ve got a couple of tight ends they use a ton—250, 260 guys, athletic, long-armed, move around, they can out-number you in the running game really fast.”
For the Tar Heels, it’s all about finishing.
“We’re still a work in progress,” senior tailback A.J. Blue says. “We just have to finish every play. You look at the film and you see one guy here not finishing his block or one guy not finishing his tackle. It’s one guy on so many plays. I know it will come. This week would be a great time for it to all come together like we know it can.”