West Virginia is making its seventh straight bowl appearance; the Mountaineers defeated Oklahoma in last season's Fiesta Bowl after narrowly missing a national championship game appearance. Carolina has a 15-3-2 record in games played in Charlotte; this will be its fourth game there since 1942. Carolina holds a 1-0 edge in the series with West Virginia, winning the only other meeting in the 1997 Gator Bowl.
Last Time: Carolina beat West Virginia 20-13 in the 1997 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. Carolina forced four turnovers as quarterback Oscar Davenport took home MVP honors. Davenport was starting in place of All-ACC quarterback Chris Keldorf and he completed 14-of-26 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown pass to Octavus Barnes. He also rushed for one touchdown. Carolina had a 17-3 lead going into halftime but the Mountaineers came back, opening the second half with a scoring drive to get within seven at 17-10. The Mountaineers had one last chance to tie in the fourth quarter but the defense stopped them on fourth and 6 at the Carolina 24 yard-line. Dre Bly had two second-half interceptions. Na Brown led the Tar Heels with 62 receiving yards on three catches. Leon Johnson rushed for 79 yards on 25 carries. For West Virginia, Amos Zereoue led the team in rushing with 63 yards on 21 carries. Quarterback Chad Johnston completed 17-of-34 passes for 197 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. David Saunders had nine catches for 130 yards.
Bend, but don't break: Carolina's defense has always had a `bend, but don't break' mentality. It often stretched to the point where it seemed inevitable that it would break at the end of games when opponents would be ready to score to tie or take a late lead, yet it rarely did. West Virginia will certainly put that mentality to the test. Even though the Mountaineers aren't clicking as much on offense as they have in years past, they are still incredibly dangerous. They are averaging 5.5 yards per play rushing and 9.2 yards per completion passing and 5.9 yards per play overall. They have 33 offensive touchdowns (14 rushing, 19 passing). The Mountaineers are 12th in the nation in rushing offense with 217.2 yards per game (Carolina is 57th in rushing defense, allowing 140.8 yards) and 109th in passing with 135.3 yards per game (Carolina is 79th, allowing 217.2). They also have one of the best offensive lines in the nation, leading the high-powered running game and ranking 15th in sacks allowed in the nation. Carolina has struggled to find a consistent pass-rush, ranking 87th in sacks.
The Mountaineers can pass the ball but their identity has always been built around the running game. They have 134 rushing touchdowns in the last 44 games (3.0 per game) and have out-rushed opponents in 42 of 45 games with a 37-8 record in that span. They are also 57-1 when scoring 30 or more points since 2000. But where `bend, but don't break' comes into play is in two areas - third down and in the red zone. West Virginia is tied for 111th in the nation in red-zone offense and Carolina is 98th in red zone defense. The team that wins that battle obviously is likely to win the game. But on third down, West Virginia has converted 62-of-158 (39.2%) and Carolina has allowed opponents to convert 77-of-187 (41%), 76th in the nation. Carolina's third-down defense was a problem during its late-season skid and the Tar Heels will need to be able to shake off a big play or two, bow up and get the dangerous West Virginia offense off the field.
Offensive execution and ball movement: West Virginia is a team that has always been known for its offense, but its defense - particularly this year - has not received the attention it deserved. The Mountaineers employ a bizarre 3-3-5 defensive scheme built around speed and playmaking. It would seem like a mismatch with the No. 35 defense in the country taking on the No. 95 offense in Carolina, but the Carolina offense has begun to find its legs again. Still, the Mountaineers are No. 47 in the country in rushing defense (134.8 yards per game) while Carolina has the No. 86 rushing offense (125.1 yards per game). They are 38th in pass defense, allowing 190.7 yards and Carolina's passing offense is 83rd, averaging 192.2 yards.
The Mountaineers also have the No. 1 red zone defense in the country, allowing teams to score just 27 of 42 times. Carolina is 36th n red-zone offense, scoring 34-of-40 times. Carolina has had a +2.0 average turnover margin in eight wins and -3.0 in four losses. Overall, the Tar Heels have gained 27 and lost 21 turnovers. The Mountaineers are 12th in turnover margin, gaining 26 and losing 14. The Mountaineers are 48-3 since 2002 when winning the turnover battle. Another somewhat even matchup is in pass efficiency. Carolina leads the league in that category with a 135.1 rating. The Mountaineers are 14th in pass efficiency defense. This game could come down to how well Carolina does on third down, an area of inconsistency for the Tar Heels all season. Carolina is still 35th in the nation in third-down conversions, turning 69 of 162 (43%) into first downs. West Virginia is 83rd in third-down defense, allowing 39.2%. Carolina will need to keep converting at that clip to stay on the field.
Special Teams: Carolina has done well this season in games in which its special teams - particularly its coverage units and punter Terrence Brown - have performed well. It has struggled in games in which the coverage units have given up big plays or made mistakes. West Virginia is a team that features Pat McAfee, the all-time scoring leader in school history with 377 points. He handles all kicking and punting duties for the Mountaineers and has been outstanding in both roles, leading a punting unit that is third in the nation and aiding his punt coverage unit to a No. 13 national ranking. Carolina is 34th in the nation in punt returns and 88th in punting. The Tar Heels are also 71st in punt defense. But the area that Carolina has the edge is in kickoff returns, ranking 11th in the country in kickoff yardage defense (18.2 yards per return). The Mountaineers are 50th in kickoff returns and 117th in kickoff defense while Carolina is 52nd in kickoff returns.
West Virginia is a team that has not moved the ball as well as it would have liked this season but has always been able to count on McAfee. The senior has averaged 44.7 yards per punt this season, a career-best, and has 18 punts of 50 yards or more. He also has 23 punts that were downed inside the 20-yard line. He has made all 32 extra points and 16-of-19 field goals, including a career-best 52-yarder. He has also averaged a career-best 61.3 yards per kickoff this season and has averaged at least 60 n three of four seasons. Carolina, on the other hand, has not had a reliable kicking game. Carolina's kickers made 14-of-21 field goals on the season (66.7%) but made just 4-of-6 in the final three games, during which Carolina had a 1-2 record. The kickers began the year missing five in the first six games, but two were from 50 or more yards. In the last six games, the kickers made just one field goal of 40 yards or more and missed from 28 and 43 yards away.
Released by TarheelBlue. Lauren Brownlow is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly