North Carolina coach Larry Fedora was asked this week if there's a certain danger that comes with playing 0-4 teams like Idaho. His response: “No doubt about it, especially when you have an 0-4 team that is probably the best in the country in my opinion.”
So there you have it. Four FBS teams came into the week at 0-4 — UI, Massachusetts, Eastern Michigan and Memphis — and Fedora considers the Vandals the class of that group. Not exactly what UI coach Robb Akey was hoping for before the season.
Fedora’s Tar Heels and Akey’s Vandals meet this afternoon in Chapel Hill, N.C. We’ve got a preview below.
As we highlighted in our advance for the paper, the Vandals left Thursday to get a jump-start on their cross-country trip. Leaving a day earlier seemed to help UI last year at Virginia — Idaho came within a failed two-point conversion of winning in overtime — and Akey thinks it will help this time, too.
But regardless the travel schedule, it’s clear the Vandals have to play their best game in probably three years to be in position to win today. UNC is almost a four-touchdown favorite and has held opponents without a touchdown over the last six quarters.
The Tar Heels’ defense is improving, and their offense is explosive with Bryn Renner under center. He’s completed 62.5 percent of passes and has 11 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Akey marveled earlier this week at how quickly UNC sets up plays in its no-huddle spread offense. During one sequence earlier this year, Akey noticed that the Heels ran a stretch play and got back to the line to snap the ball in 13 seconds. “They’re one of the fast-paced offenses,” Akey said. “And they do it well.”
UNC is averaging 71.5 plays a game in Fedora's first year. For context, Idaho averages 65.5 plays in its more traditional offense. Nonetheless, last week against Wyoming, UI experimented with a hurry-up offense of its own, and it had success throwing off the Cowboys on occasion. (In the first half, quarterback Dominique Blackman quick-snapped the ball with Wyoming not ready and ran 28 yards on a makeshift scramble play.)
Another thing that struck Akey when watching North Carolina on film was the size of its offensive line. “They’re monster big,” Idaho’s coach said. “The small guy is 6-4, 300 pounds. That’s the little fella.”
The Heels actually have two starters between 6-foot-3 and 6-4. The rest of the line is either 6-6 or 6-7 (heights that seem fitting given UNC’s basketball prowess). But other than 330-pound right guard Travis Bond, UNC's line isn’t overly bulky.
The Vandals, meanwhile, have shown progress in key areas from week to week since falling flat in the season opener. Akey made sure Monday to mention just about every positive through four weeks, from the team’s improved preparation to the cleaning up of “senseless penalties” like false starts and procedure calls.
Yet a common theme for Idaho has been turnovers and other self-inflicted adversity, as Akey called it. Blackman has been effective in three starts, but he’s also thrown five interceptions and lost two fumbles last week. The Vandals have 11 turnovers on the year, compared to just five for their opponents. And a lack of discipline has manifested itself at key times with personal foul penalties.
“This is a completely different team than what we had a year ago,” Akey said, when asked to compare this club to last season’s 2-10 team. “Are we better at responding (to adversity)? Yeah. Do we still need to be better at it? Yeah.
“I think we’re responding to it right now. We need to stop creating it.”