Points should not be in short supply when Rutgers and North Carolina square off in the inaugural Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Essentially a retooled version of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with Power 5 conference tie-ins, Ford Field will feature a pair of defenses that combined are giving up more than 900 yards and nearly 70 points per game.
Making the move from the American Athletic Conference to the much more competitive Big Ten, many expected Rutgers to finish at the bottom of its division and well out of postseason consideration. Instead Kyle Flood made it three bowl invites in three seasons, as the Scarlet Knights (7-5) knocked off Michigan and Maryland on their way to a fourth-place finish (3-5) in the Big Ten’s East Division.
Next up for Flood is to get his first bowl victory. Rutgers lost to Virginia Tech 13-10 in overtime in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl and 29-19 to Notre Dame in last season’s Pinstripe Bowl. Those two losses ended a streak of five straight bowl wins under former head coach Greg Schiano.
Expectations for North Carolina (6-6) entering the fall were considerably higher, but another slow start doomed the Tar Heels’ ACC Coastal Division title hopes. A four-game losing streak forced Larry Fedora’s team to put together another strong second half just to get bowl eligible.
Fedora is 21-16 in three seasons in Chapel Hill, which isn’t that bad considering what he has had deal with off of the field. A bowl game ban in 2012, which was the final product of the Butch Davis era, is the only thing keeping Fedora from a third straight postseason appearance as Carolina’s head coach.
Instead, Fedora will look to improve his bowl record with the Tar Heels to 2-0. North Carolina beat Cincinnati 39-17 in last season’s Belk Bowl to conclude a 6-1 run to finish out the 2013 campaign.
This represents the seventh meeting between these two schools. Rutgers and North Carolina have split the previous six mtachups, the last being a 24-22 Tar Heels victory in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2011. That was Schiano’s final season with the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers vs. North Carolina
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -3
Rutgers’ Key to Victory: Take Advantage of Bad North Carolina D
The Scarlet Knights are not an offensive powerhouse by any means. They rank 84th in the nation and seventh in the Big Ten in total offense (378.8 ypg) and 89th and ninth in scoring offense (25.6 ppg). Rutgers has scored 38 or more points four times, but it also was held to a total of 54 points in its five Big Ten losses. However, the Scarlet Knights’ offensive inefficiency does not compare to North Carolina’s defensive struggles. The Tar Heels are 118th in total defense (495.7 ypg), 119th in scoring defense (38.9 ppg), 117th in rushing defense (232.2 ypg), and 108th in passing defense (263.5 ypg). There’s no way to sugarcoat it, this defense has been horrendous. Five different teams have scored 43 or more points on North Carolina, including 70 by East Carolina. As bad as the Heels’ defense has been, it’s still up to Rutgers to take advantage of this seemingly favorable matchup. This means that quarterback Gary Nova needs to avoid the turnovers that have plagued his career and give junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo (1,043 yds. 10 TDs), a chance to operate against a secondary that has already allowed 28 passing plays of 30 yards or more. The Knights also may be able to get their young running backs going on the ground too. Whatever the game plan, Rutgers needs to figure out a way to generate some points or run the risk of being the only offense to not enjoy success against one of the nation’s worst defenses.
North Carolina’s Key to Victory: Put Together a Complete Game
Given the Tar Heels’ preseason expectations, it’s perfectly fine to label this season a disappointment. Defense has been a major problem for Larry Fedora’s team all season, but so has consistency. North Carolina has looked pretty bad, as it did in a 70-41 loss at East Carolina followed up by a 50-35 thrashing at Clemson, but it’s also had its moments. The Tar Heels hung with Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., before falling 50-43, beat ACC Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech and thumped Duke 45-20 in Durham. And of course they followed up that huge win by laying an absolute egg against NC State (35-7 home loss) to close out their slate. As poorly as the defense has performed, this offense (34.3 ppg, 3rd in the ACC and 35th nationally) is capable of scoring enough points to win shootouts (see Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, even Notre Dame). If junior quarterback Marquise Williams can continue his solid play (300.6 ypg of total offense, 19th in FBS), the Tar Heels should be able to do some things against Rutgers’ defense, which hasn’t exactly shut opponents down. However, the defense will need to rise to the occasion as well, and a contribution on special teams, a strength last season, certainly wouldn’t hurt. Coincidentally, the circumstances surrounding this game are similar to those of last season. Last November, Carolina lost its regular-season finale to finish 6-6 and everyone was wondering which team would show up for the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati. Well, the Tar Heels put together one of their best all-around efforts, with offense, defense and special teams all making sizeable contributions in their convincing 39-17 victory over the Bearcats. Will there be a repeat performance against the Scarlet Knights?
Rutgers has the better record, but the Scarlet Knights’ signature win this season was a come-from-behind victory at Maryland to close out the regular season. Otherwise, Kyle Flood’s team has defeated just one other bowl team (Navy) while getting thumped by the Big Ten’s better teams. For all of its defensive woes, North Carolina still won six games, including victories over ACC Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech and Duke. The Tar Heels beat four bowl teams (Pittsburgh, San Diego State) and nearly took down Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. North Carolina’s defense has had trouble stopping anyone this fall, but I am not convinced that Rutgers has enough offensive firepower to take full advantage of this matchup. On the other hand, I do think Larry Fedora’s offense will be effective against the Scarlet Knights’ defense with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams being the difference-maker in the end. There should be no lack of offensive fireworks at Ford Field as the Tar Heels have just enough firepower to outlast the Scarlet Knights in a back-and-forth, highly entertaining affair in the Motor City.