Independence Bowl Preview: North Carolina vs. Missouri

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Giovani Bernard looks to cap off a terrific freshman season with a win over Missouri.

<p> Athlon previews the 2011 Independence Bowl: Missouri vs. North Carolina.</p>

by Mark Ross

AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl
Missouri (7-5) vs. North Carolina (7-5)
Date: Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. ET
Location: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.

When Missouri and North Carolina meet up on Dec. 26 in Shreveport, La., it will represent more than just the season finale for these two schools. For Missouri, it will be its last game as a member of the Big 12 Conference as the Tigers are headed to the SEC next season. For North Carolina, this will serve as interim head coach Everett Withers’ last game at the helm as former Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora was hired in early December to take over the reigns.

Missouri will enter the SEC next season with a string of seven consecutive bowl appearances, while this represents a fourth straight bowl bid for North Carolina. The Tigers are 3-3 in their previous six bowl games and have lost their lost two, including a 27-24 defeat to Iowa in last year’s Insight Bowl. The Tar Heels are just 1-2 in their last three postseason games with that lone win coming in last year’s Music City Bowl when they beat Tennessee 30-27 in overtime.

Although their overall records are the same at 7-5, Missouri fared better in conference than North Carolina with the Tigers going 5-4 in the Big 12 compared to the Tar Heels’ 3-5 mark in the ACC. The Tigers also are riding a three-game winning streak headed into this game, while the Tar Heels have dropped four of their last six.

Statistically speaking, Missouri comes in with the more productive offense, especially when it comes to the running the ball, while North Carolina’s defense is a little stingier, especially when it comes to stopping the run. See a developing trend here?

Missouri also holds the historical advantage, having beaten North Carolina the previous two times they have played, but the teams have not met since 1976.

WHEN MISSOURI HAS THE BALL

Missouri comes into this game averaging 472.4 yards of total offense, good for 12th in the nation, with it split 50/50 between the run (236.2 yards per game) and pass (236.2 ypg). The Tigers boast the 11th-ranked rushing attack, but will be without its best ball carrier. Sophomore Henry Josey, the team’s leading rusher and a first team All Big 12 selection, went down with a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 12 against Texas. Even though he missed more than two games, Josey still led the Big 12 and finished 12th in the nation in rushing with 1,168 yards on just 145 carries, good for a mind-boggling 8.1 yards per carry.

With Josey gone, the rushing duties fall to junior back Kendial Lawrence and sophomore dual-threat quarterback James Franklin. Franklin leads the team in carries with 199 and has gained 839 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. Lawrence has rushed for 263 yards on 50 carries (5.3 ypc) with two touchdowns since becoming the Tigers’ lead running back.

North Carolina has done a good job of stopping the run, giving up an average of 106.2 yards per game, which ranks 14th in the nation. If the Tar Heels can contain the Tigers’ running attack, they will have a better chance of slowing down this potent offense. Key to that effort are defensive linemen Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell. Coples was named All-ACC first team for the second year in a row and with Powell the duo has combined for 96 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 8.5 sacks. 

As Missouri’s quarterback, Franklin came into this season having to fill the big shoes of the departed Blaine Gabbert, but the sophomore signal caller has more than shown himself to be capable. Franklin has more touchdown passes (20 to 16), a higher yards/attempt average (7.7 to 6.7), a higher passer rating (141.2 to 127.0), despite attempting more than 120 fewer passes than Gabbert did in 2010.

Franklin also has posted the same completion percentage (63.2 to 63.4) this season when compared to what Gabbert, the 10th overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft, did last season. Add the rushing element and you get the nation’s 15th-ranked player in total offense (297.7 yards per game) and the North Carolina’s primary reason for concern when it comes to defensive game planning.

The Tigers have two viable pass-catching threats in wide receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew. Moe’s numbers are down considerably from last season, when he caught 92 passes for 1,045 yards, but the junior still leads the team with 54 receptions for 649 yards and has scored four times.

Egnew earned first team All Big 12 honors after catching 47 passes for 484 yards with three touchdowns. The senior has the size (6-6, 245), talent and ability to play on Sundays next year and will be a tough test for Carolina’s linebackers and secondary to contain. The Tigers also have Marcus Lucas, a sophomore wideout with good size (6-5) and who led the team with five touchdown receptions.

North Carolina has been susceptible to the pass, giving up nearly 250 yards per game through the air, so it will need to stay strong against the run in hopes of keeping Missouri’s offense as one-dimensional as possible. With a dual-threat quarterback like Franklin, however, that is far easier said than done.

WHEN NORTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL

North Carolina’s offense revolves around quarterback Bryn Renner, running back Giovani Bernard and wide receiver Dwight Jones. Renner, just a sophomore, has established himself as the Tar Heels’ leader in his first season as starter.

He ranks ninth in the country in passing efficiency (161.2 rating), having completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,769 yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has bounced back from a two-interception effort against NC State to throw for nearly 500 yards with four touchdowns and just one pick in his last two games combined.

Jones is Renner’s primary target as the senior led the ACC with 79 receptions, was third in receiving yards with 1,119 and tied for the conference lead with 11 touchdown catches. The Tar Heels also have a pair of big play threats on the other side in junior receivers Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd, who have combined for 54 catches, 846 yards and eight touchdowns.

This trio, who each stand 6-2 or taller, has combined to average 14.8 yards per catch. Their size, combined with their speed could prove troublesome for Missouri’s secondary, which has just one defensive back taller than 6-1 listed on its depth chart. Missouri, like Carolina, has also struggled to defend opponents’ aerial attack, giving up a near-identical average of close to 250 passing yards per game.

As far as Carolina’s ground game goes, its head battering ram, if you will, is redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard. He has made quite a first impression as he finished third in the ACC in rushing with a school freshman record 1,222 yards. He has averaged 5.4 yards per carry, rushed for 100 yards or more in seven games and scored a total of 14 touchdowns. Put it all together and you get just the second freshman tailback in school history to earn first team All-ACC honors.  

Missouri has been fairly solid against the rush and will need to maintain that consistency to try and limit Bernard and not allow the Carolina offense to sustain drives and stay on the field. Leading the defensive charge for the Tigers is a pair of senior defensive lineman in Jacquies Smith and Dominique Hamilton. Together, they combined for 89 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

Special Teams

Across the board, special teams appear to be fairly even with neither team standing out in any one category. Missouri punter Trey Barrow was first in the Big 12 conference and ninth in the nation averaging 45.0 yards per punt, while Carolina’s punter, Thomas Hibbard, averaged 38.4 yards on his punts. However, when you take into consideration net punting averages, the two teams are separated by less than two yards — 37.0 for Missouri, 35.4 for Carolina.

Barrow also took over the placekicking duties after Grant Ressel missed the final five games due to a hip flexor injury. Combined Barrow and Ressel have made just 14 of 23 field goal attempts, with seven of those misses coming from 40 yards or longer. Like Barrow, Carolina’s Casey Moore took over the placekicking duties from Casey Barth early in the season and also has struggled with his accuracy (5 of 9).

Missouri is the better team statistically when it comes to punt returns, averaging 8.9 yards per return compared to Carolina’s meager 4.1. The Tar Heels have the edge when it comes to kickoff returns as their 24.4 yards per return ranks 13th in the nation, while the Tigers are 68th with 21.2 yards per return. North Carolina’s T.J. Thorpe returned a kickoff against Clemson 100 yards for a score, while Missouri’s returned a punt 44 yards for a touchdown against Western Illinois.

Both teams do a good job of limiting return yardage, so unless someone breaks a big one, most of the yards in this game figure to be generated by the offenses.

Prediction

Besides having the same record (7-5), these two teams are very similar in a number of statistics. They both come into this game giving up an average of 23.5 points per game and aren’t that far apart in scoring offense either (32.2 points per game for Missouri, 28.3 for Carolina). They also are separated by a mere 13 yards per game when it comes to their respective passing attacks.

Missouri’s offense has generated more yards, while Carolina’s defense has surrendered less. Missouri’s running game has been more productive to this point, but the Tigers will be without their all-conference running back, while the Tar Heels will have theirs and also have done a good job of defending the run.

This game most likely will come down to which team’s quarterback plays better and makes fewer mistakes. While both Franklin and Renner have been accurate and productive passers, Franklin brings an additional element with this running ability, similar to two ACC quarterbacks that Carolina faced earlier this season — Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.

In those two games, Boyd and Thomas combined for 602 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns, and not surprisingly, Carolina lost both of these games. Expect a similar script and outcome in this game too.

Missouri 31, North Carolina 24

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