USF-UNC: Five things to keep an eye on
Lots of stats and situations pop out going into Saturday's USF-North Carolina game, but I'm going to pare it down to five easy conversation topics to liven up your breakfast tailgate. In no particular order:
1. North Carolina's time of possession. UNC ranks 119th -- that's last -- in Division I-A (none of the Football Bowl Subdivision nonsense here) with just 23:49 on average. Part of that problem is North Carolina's third-down defense -- only eight teams in the country have allowed opponents to convert more third downs than the Tar Heels -- Virginia converted 11 out of 20 last week. UNC also hasn't had many sustained drives -- against Virginia, they had none four minutes or longer, while Virginia had four such drives. If that doesn't change, UNC's defense will be hot and tired late in the game.
2. UNC's big three receivers vs. USF's nickel defense. UNC has three receivers -- Brooks Foster, Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate -- with more than 200 yards receiving already this season. USF, while playing one less game, is led by Taurus Johnson's 116 yards. So while Bulls fans can hang their hats on starting corners Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, it won't be enough to shut down two receivers. Tate's the third receiver, but he has three touchdowns among his seven catches. Seventy percent of UNC's first downs have come through the air this season.
3. Delbert Alvarado's field-goal accuracy. The main reason UNC lost against Virginia was Cavaliers kicker Chris Gould, who went 5-for-5 (including 51 and 48 yards) in a 22-20 win. Alvarado went 2-for-6 in USF's overtime win against Auburn, and the Bulls can't afford to leave 12 points on the board and expect to win consistently. Moreover, they really don't want to put the game on Alvarado's leg: USF has the Big East's least efficient red-zone offense, scoring on only 60 percent of its trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. If USF can find touchdowns where Virginia settled for field goals, it won't be a close game.
4. More second-half running from Mike Ford. Ford has certainly been USF's best running option in his first two games, but his second half against Auburn -- 10 carries, 15 yards -- was only so impressive. He was stopped for a loss on third and 3, and dropped again on first-and-goal from the Auburn 3. The solution might be UNC's run defense, which allowed Virginia's Cedric Peerman to rush for 186 yards. Then again, UNC allowed East Carolina's Patrick Pinckney to throw for 406 yards and three touchdowns, so it's hard to tell where the Tar Heels are most vulnerable.
5. Jerome Murphy. I wanted to write a feature on Murphy for Saturday's paper, but he declined to be interviewed. Certainly his right, and I think eventually he'll be more comfortable talking. Lots of ways he can make a difference in this game: as the nickel corner, on kickoff returns, where he ranks third nationally with a 37.0-yard average, and especially on the punt-block unit. Murphy should have had a block against Elon -- just a hunch, but I think we'll be trying to interview Murphy after the game.
Hey, it's halftime here at men's soccer, with USF looking strong in a 0-0 stalemate. The Bulls have had more legitimate scoring opportunities, but it's easy to see why Connecticut hasn't given up a goal in its previous five matches, with stellar play in goal for both sides tonight. More to come ...