Al Golden isn’t getting caught up in Miami’s first top-10 ranking in four years.
One bad game, and it could vanish in an instant.
The 10th-ranked Hurricanes (5-0, 1-0 ACC) debut their highest ranking since 2009 on Thursday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., when they visit a North Carolina team that has floundered in Larry Fedora’s second season.
The Hurricanes are one of three unbeatens in the ACC. No other conference has more than two — and are trying for their first 6-0 start since the 2004 team also won its first six games in its first year in the conference.
“We’re 0-0 going into this game,” Golden said. “The rest of it doesn’t really matter. It’s all about North Carolina right now, and we have to continue to have that bunker mentality for the rest of the year.”
This matchup — just the second Thursday night game in Kenan Stadium history — was supposed to be a matchup of two emerging teams and Coastal Division contenders.
But so far, only the Hurricanes have held up their end of the bargain.
“We know they’re coming in as a top-10 team and they’re going to have a lot of firepower offensively and defensively,” North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner said.
Miami ranks among the ACC’s top four in seven of the eight major team statistical categories. The Hurricanes are the toughest team in the league to pass against — allowing an average of only 142 yards through the air, and giving up just two passing touchdowns this season.
That’s a bad matchup for a slumping North Carolina team that has the ACC’s worst ground game and relies heavily on the pass.
The Tar Heels (1-4, 0-2) expect to have Renner back after a foot injury kept him out of a loss at Virginia Tech two weeks ago.
“Yeah, that’s disappointing,” Fedora said of his team’s struggles. “But it’s not going to take any luster off what we do Thursday night. We’re focusing on the next game and we can’t worry about what’s happened in the past. We have to learn from the mistakes, the corrections we’ve made and move on.”
Five things to know about Miami’s visit to North Carolina:
DUKE IS DUKE: The Tar Heels have a natural distaste for anything named Duke and they’ll need to put the brakes on Miami RB Duke Johnson to have any chance at the upset. Johnson leads the ACC in all-purpose yardage (190.8 ypg), averages 30 yards per kickoff return and is the league’s second-leading rusher. He represents a major problem for a defense that is the league’s worst against the run.
AIR MORRIS: Golden is concerned about keeping the Tar Heels’ defensive front away from QB Stephen Morris, after North Carolina held him to 155 yards passing in an 18-14 win last year in Miami Gardens. “We didn’t block them particularly well a year ago, and they got after us,” Golden said. It will be critical for DE Kareem Martin and DL Tim Jackson to generate pressure and beat blocks from a Miami offensive line that has given up just four sacks in five games.
STEADY HANDS: North Carolina’s offense will need a big game from TE Eric Ebron, who has been the unit’s steadiest performer by far. He leads the team with 23 receptions for 333 yards and is on pace to become the first UNC tight end in 33 years to be its top pass-catcher. Says Golden: “We can’t have him making a bunch of plays down the field.”
GROUNDED GROUND GAME: The Tar Heels haven’t been able to get much of anything going on the ground. North Carolina has struggled to find a suitable replacement for Gio Bernard, who’s now with the Cincinnati Bengals, and ranks last in the ACC with an average of just 100 yards. Opponents have been able to run on the Hurricanes, who give up nearly 170 yards per game on the ground, but are the Tar Heels capable of doing it?
THURSDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: The Hurricanes have been tough to beat in nationally televised Thursday night games, going 15-3 in them. But this is a new stage for North Carolina, which is playing host to one for just the second time in school history. The last one came in 2009 — when the current fifth-year seniors were redshirting. The Tar Heels have dubbed the game “Zero Dark Thursday” and are wearing black uniforms to connect the team with its nickname and the “Tar Pit” student section.
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