Carolina Faces Its Stiffest Test Yet

North Carolina kicker Casey Barth set the North Carolina record for career field goals last week against Wake Forest.

North Carolina (1-1, 0-1) at No. 19/20 Louisville (2-0), 3:30 PM, ABC/ESPN2

The last time Carolina beat a ranked team on the road (No. 24 Florida State in 2010), Casey Barth kicked the game-winner with 55 seconds left to give Carolina a 37-35 lead. Barth was 2-of-2 on his field goal attempts at Wake Forest last week, but it was Carolina’s failure to score a touchdown that haunted them in a 28-27 loss.

“Offensively, we shot ourselves in the foot too many times: killed drives, kicked field goals instead of putting the ball in the end zone and that’s going to come back and hurt you,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said.

The Tar Heels might be without star tailback Giovani Bernard – who was a late scratch against Wake – again this week. His backups, A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, did a more than capable job in his absence. But Bernard is a special player, as he showed last year against Louisville. Carolina won a defensive battle 14-7, and Bernard had 123 of their 264 total offensive yards.

The Cardinals have been impressive, thumping in-state rival Kentucky in the opener 32-14 and dispatching Missouri State 35-7 last week. And their defense will be a challenge for the Tar Heels again this year. Five of Louisville’s top seven tacklers from a year ago are back, and the defense has allowed just 21 points through two games and 311.0 yards per game.

The biggest matchup problem for the Tar Heels is Louisville’s passing offense (led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater) against UNC’s secondary, particularly after the way Wake sliced and diced Carolina’s pass defense in a 28-27 win for much of the game. Like Wake, Louisville’s offense doesn’t get a ton of big plays, but can when necessary. The Cardinals are capable of getting yardage in chunks and have a nearly ten-minute time of possession advantage over opponents.

But Fedora isn’t necessarily concerned with time of possession. The Tar Heels have run 13 more plays than their opponents despite a 7-minute deficit in time of possession. But he was concerned when he heard his defense had 25 missed assignments against Wake. “When you have missed assignments and you start giving up plays because you’re not where you’re supposed to be, it definitely affected our mental makeup on that side of the ball, and that wasn’t good,” Fedora said.

Louisville will feature the best rushing attack Carolina has faced. Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright have combined for 329 yards on 67 carries, averaging 4.9 per rush despite just two rushes of 20 or more yards. But Carolina has a stout defensive front that is capable of stopping the run: the Tar Heels have allowed just 53 rushing yards per game and held Wake’s ground game relatively in check. It’s the 295.0 passing yards allowed.

And that will be the issue. Bridgewater improved as last season progressed and has started off this year on a tear, completing 49-of-60 passes for 576 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s mobile enough to evade the rush, and frankly, the Tar Heels are going to have to find a pass rush of any kind to have a chance.

“(Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price) had two weeks to throw back there,” UNC defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said. “I told my guys on the d-line, we’ve got to be better next week. We’ve got to be better from here on out.”

The mistakes and missed opportunities in that loss to Wake Forest clearly still stings, but the Tar Heels have to make sure the loss doesn’t “beat them twice”, as Fedora put it. “It’s gone. It’s over with,” Fedora said. “The thing we’ve got to do is learn from the mistakes that we made so that we don’t make them again.”

Mascot facts: Louisville adopted the cardinal mascot in 1913, mainly because it’s the state bird of Kentucky. Wow, a mascot that makes sense! They jokingly call him “Louie” because of how “Louisville” is often mispronounced.

Prediction: Louisville, 34-24. With or without Bernard, North Carolina showed last week what its biggest issue will be this season: defense. Now, the Tar Heels will face a team that can run the ball well and throw it well (and efficiently) when necessary. Even worse, they’re facing a quarterback that is playing with a lot of confidence and can move around to avoid pressure.

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