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December 26, 2011

Keys to the Game: Independence Bowl

What are the keys for North Carolina as they look to knock off Missouri in Monday's Advocare V100 Independence Bowl? In our final pregame feature of the 2011 season, see what it will take for the 7-5 Tar Heels to knock off 7-5 Missouri on a cold, wet, potentially rainy field in Shreveport.


SLOW MISSOURI'S RUN GAME


Missouri's running game is strong, to say the least, as the Tigers led the Big 12 Conference with an average of over 229 yards on the ground per game this fall.

Although they're missing star back Henry Josey, who will not play Monday as he recovers from a knee injury, there's plenty of weapons at Missouri's disposal, including Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore.

"We've just got to stop the run. They're one of the better teams in the nation. We've got to stop the run, make them play one-dimensional, get some support, and make sure our offense is well-prepared on their side of the ball," said senior defensive lineman Quinton Coples. "They're definitely a great run team and I think they definitely do a great job of running the ball."

"Missouri, with them being a 'spread' team, they run the ball really well. And I think that will be our main thing is trying to stop their running attack and make them pass it. I feel like our front seven is pretty good at stopping the run, and our defensive line can really get after them," added sophomore defensive end Kareem Martin.

"They're one of the top teams as far as being able to run the ball in the spread. So again, that's one of our keys. We have to stop run. I think that's the mission," added outgoing head coach Everett Withers.

With a team like Mizzou you know they're going to get their rushing yards, but the key is tripping up those 20 and 30-yard gainers that can pile up over the course of an afternoon and prove very difficult to overcome.

If UNC can find a way to slow down Lawrence and Moore and make Missouri one-dimensional---forcing quarterback James Franklin to beat the Tar Heel defense through the air and with his legs---the advantage would lean substantially in Carolina's favor.


OFFENSIVE PRECISION FOR UNC


North Carolina's offense will be moving in a new direction immediately after Monday's game, but the Tar Heels are going to need to be precise and execute this last time in John Shoop's pro-style scheme against a talented Missouri defense that could make UNC's life miserable if they don't show up to play.

"We just have to go play, and it's going to be a lot of fun," said quarterback Bryn Renner. "We have to execute. This game comes down to execution. Just running what we run. Not really trying to do anything out of the ordinary, and just running our offense."

The Tar Heels don't have to get fancy or too much 'out of the box' in order to give themselves a chance to find offensive success. Missouri is giving up over 420 yards per game defensively.

While they've been solid in the red zone, the Tigers defense has struggled on third down, allowing opponents to complete over 43 percent of third down plays.

Simply put, UNC's offense needs to come out and execute the game plan.

The conditions are likely not going to be optimal, but that's no excuse for dropped passes, blown pass protections, or fumbles. If Carolina's offense can stay on track, move the ball downfield effectively, pile up first downs, and keep UNC for playing in poor field position all afternoon, it will make it much more likely that things can swing in their favor.


BIG PLAYS IN THE PASSING GAME


Missouri's pass defense ranked a respectable fifth in the Big 12 this fall in pass defense---allowing opponents 262.8 passing yards per game---but they've had a propensity for giving up big plays through the air.

UNC's offensive players---especially guys like Renner, Dwight Jones, Jheranie Boyd, and Erik Highsmith---have seen some things on film that they're looking to exploit on Monday afternoon.

And they'll need to do it if Carolina is to have a realistic chance of winning this game.


"Dwight, Jhay, and Mook and I have known each other for a while now. So we see the same things (on film). It's good to have them there in there (in the huddle) with me. It's awesome," said Renner.


GETTING AFTER FRANKLIN


Missouri starting quarterback James Franklin is a dynamic football player---just the type of guy you'd expect to see leading an offense in the explosive, pass-happy Big 12.

As a sophomore he's faced many of the same growing pains that UNC's Renner has faced, but he's also been spectacular at times.

Franklin runs a scheme that UNC isn't particularly used to seeing, as the 'spread' the way Missouri runs it isn't something seen heavily in the ACC.

"It presents a challenge because they have a very good quarterback (Franklin) that can throw it, and they also have a good running game, a good offensive line and good running backs," said Withers.

"They're very good," said Renner of Missouri's offense.

"They play a lot of different styles of offenses in the Big 12. They play a lot more 'spread' teams, and we kind of have a similar offense to Texas A&M---kind of a more 'pro' style."

"There's not one team that we've played that runs this type of offense. I feel like this is something new for us. And we have done a lot of studying," added junior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. "There's no specific team they remind me of."

The task for Williams and the other North Carolina's defenders is to get after Franklin and rattle his cage a little bit. They're hopeful that by slowing down Mizzou's powerful running game, that mission could get much easier as the game goes on.

"Our game plan is to stop the run first---as it is always---and then just attack the quarterback," said Coples.

"'Joe Rob' (UNC assistant Joe Robinson), I think he's going to get the D-line really prepared, and Art Kaufman will have the defense ready for this game," said Williams.


POWER UP FRONT


The battle in the trenches between North Carolina's offensive line and Missouri's defensive line is going to naturally play an essential role in who wins on Monday.

Although Missouri has a talented, veteran defensive line laden with probable future pros, UNC's coaches and players feel like they have a chance to push them around a little bit.

"We've watched film on them (Missouri) every day. They have a strong D-line, so it's definitely going to be a battle in the trenches with our O-line and their D-line," said running back Giovani Bernard.

"I think we have an advantage," Bernard added. "We have some big guys up front. and they have all my faith. They've done a great job this entire season. They've opened holes for me and the other running backs in that group. Hands down to them. They're doing a great job, and I know they're going to continue it."

Along with poking holes in the Missouri front seven for Bernard to run through, UNC has to blanket the Tiger defenders in order to protect Renner, so he's able to perform the way he's capable of performing when he's not getting pressured consistently.

"Definitely they're fast and they're physical," said Renner of Missouri's defense. "I think their D-line is one of the best in the country. We usually just see eight or nine guys in the box usually, so it's kind of different. But they're definitely a great ball club."

"They've got a very talented defensive line, but I feel like we match up well. So that's one of our goals to be able to run the ball so we can help Bryn in the passing game," said Coach Withers.


HANDLING ADVERSITY IN THE SECONDARY


North Carolina's defensive backfield heads into the regular season finale looking more like a M.A.S.H. unit than a football team, as the unit has been decimated with injuries over the course of the season.

Although there's an outside chance that injured seniors Matt Merletti, Jonathan Smith, and Charles Brown will see the field at some point on Monday, the fact that they've been out of practice for several weeks overcoming various ailments makes one wonder how effective they'd be if they do come into the game.

"Those guys will be at best questionable. We'll know more once we get down there (to the game)," said Withers. "Jon Smith has done some (practicing) a little bit. Matt and Charlie have done very limited work as far as football stuff."

With Brown, Smith, and Merletti all likely to play sparingly if not miss the entire game, the stage has been set for the Tar Heels to showcase a bevy of young players who will likely compromise the core of the UNC secondary in 2012 and beyond.

Look for Terry Shankle to see heavy action at cornerback alongside Jabari Price, and look for safeties Gene Robinson and Tre Boston to play heavily as well.

Those four players, as well as true freshmen such as Brandon Ellerbe at safety or Tim Scott at cornerback, will collectively have to play well to slow down Missouri's potent offense and keep them from blowing the game open.

The loss of so many key players in the secondary can partially explain why the Tar Heels come into the Independence Bowl ranked dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in pass defense, but Monday provides an opportunity for these young players to redeem themselves a little bit, and to do so in a way that could provide a positive glimpse into the future.

Shankle, Price, Robinson, Boston, Scott, and Ellerbe will all be back next season, so a strong outing today against Missouri can only serve to help them as they prepare for 2012 under Larry Fedora.


DEALING WITH THE ELEMENTS


Gameday in Shreveport has not exactly brought out the best in Mother Nature.

Conditions for Monday's game appear to be unfavorable, with rain pouring down across the state of Louisiana and much of the Heartland through much of Christmas night and into the 26th. The field will likely be saturated with standing water, creating a muddy situation that could make things pretty messy, to say the least.

Even if the rain stops during the actual game---there's a 50 percent chance of rain Monday evening in Shreveport---there's a legit concern that all the rain coming down in the hours preceding the game will make the field sluggish and perhaps even a little treacherous.

There's also the concern of cold weather, with temperatures likely hovering in the low 40's or upper 30's.

While it won't be cold enough to freeze the field, it will be cold enough to make every thud of the pads sting a little more than it does in the summertime. It will be cold enough to make standing along the sidelines unpleasant. It will be cold enough to see smoke blowing through the players' helmets as they breathe. And uniforms will get heavier with all the moisture and mud.

Field position and turnovers are important in winning football whether you're playing in a dome or in a blizzard, but it's especially critical playing when playing in inclement weather to avoid giving the ball to the opposition or allowing them to dominate field position. UNC simply cannot afford to start positions consistently inside their own 20 or 30-yard line, lest they allow Missouri's defense the chance to make a momentum-changing play.

The good thing is that Missouri also has to play in the crappy weather, and there's always a chance that UNC could be the beneficiary of a momentum-changing play of their own if the Tigers aren't ready to handle the wet, slippery field and the anticipated cold.

Whether it's raining or if the field is just muddy, Carolina has to protect the football and do a nice job in special teams in terms of getting off punts and covering them. In a game where the elements appear to have a chance of playing a significant factor, UNC can't let this angle beat them.

If they lose to a Missouri team playing at the top of its game that's one thing, but it sure would be a shame to lose by allowing the weather to get the best of them.

By preparing ahead of time---working vigilantly in pregame drills to get ready for the adverse conditions---and by also focusing during the game on individual assignments and making ball protection a priority, perhaps UNC can avoid a devastating situation where the weather contributes to losing them the ball game.






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