In the second game of the season the Tar Heels will take on the San Diego State Aztecs in Chapel Hill. The Aztecs have a senior quarterback and a bowl win last season. The result of this game will be a strong indicator of how good the Heels can be.
The Heel's second opponent this season is coming off a bowl win against Buffalo and a 8-5 year. In their bowl game they successfully kept the number five pick in the NFL draft, Khalil Mack, off their quarterback. The Aztecs are not a team that will roll over and may give the Heels a true fight. The core of a team that romped in their bowl game returns and travels to Chapel Hill hungry for a win against a team in the preseason top 25 team.
The offense for the Aztecs will be their biggest weapon. They averaged 29.8 points per game and were relatively consistent in terms of offensive output. Ohio State held them to only 7 points and they had two high scoring affairs against Nevada and Buffalo in which they put up 51 and 49 points respectively. On the whole however, this is a team that can score and score in bunches that will test UNC's defense early in the season. Leading that offense is senior quarterback Quinn Kaehler. Kaehler threw for just more than 3000 yards last year and completed just under 60% of his passes in his first year as a quarterback in only 12 of the teams 13 games (he sat out the season opening loss against FCS school Eastern Illinois). Kaehler is a true quarterback who is has very little variance, he never completed fewer than 50% of his passes or threw for less than 200 yards in any single game but also never really displayed exceptional skills, only breaking 300 yards once, in an OT loss to Fresno State. Kaehler also sports a pedestrian 7.73 yards per attempt and does not run much although he did have a 29 yard scramble for a touchdown in their bowl win. Coincidentally, that was his longest run of the season. Kaehler will be throwing to veteran hands this season including his top target from last year, Ezell Ruffin. Ruffin returns to the Aztecs coming off a 1136 yard season as does Tim Vizzi who was the team's third leading receiver with 278 yards. Ruffin averaged 16.7 yards per reception and Vizzi averaged 15.4 yards per catch. The Heels will need to keep this explosive senior pair of targets without the ball in their hands or at least close to the line of scrimmage and not give up yards after the catch. A sleeper to keep an eye on is sophomore Eric Judge. Judge caught only 13 balls in his first year but 3 were for touchdowns and he still produced 218 yards, that kind of impact could be an x-factor going against a third string corner or an over-matched linebacker. The key to stopping the passing game will be pressure on Kaehler. Kaehler is not a runner and he was sacked 30 times last season against primarily non-power conference schools. Consistent pressure will not only result in plenty of sacks but also force Kaehler into check-downs and rushed throws. This is a key for the Heels because it will also remove opportunities for the fast Aztec receivers to get open down the field.
For all the yardage that the Aztecs got out of their passing game last year, they only scored 19 touchdowns against 9 interceptions, but they put the ball in the end zone 30 times on the ground. Junior top back Adam Muema is back after a 1244 yard season and should get the vast majority of the touches. Muema figures to be a workhorse this year and build on his 256 carries and 4.9 average yards per carry from last season. Stopping Muema in the red zone is the key for UNC's defense in this game. Kaehler does not throw many short passes and despite the dynamism of the Aztec receivers, they're short, none of the top 5 receivers on their depth chart is above 6-1. A short receiving corps does not lend itself to red zone performance due to an inability to fight for jump balls and an inability to box out defensive backs to create room for an accurate throw. Just watch out for the Aztec tight ends, although the players on the roster only caught one pass last year, it was a 1 yard red zone score. The Aztecs also brought in two freshman recruits in David Wells and Darryl Richardson to help at the position, but most importantly, including the two incoming freshmen, there are four tight ends on the roster listed at 6-5. For that reason alone the Heels should take care in the red zone on jump balls. If UNC can keep the ball out of the end zone this game should not be that difficult. Aztec kicking last season was, in a word, atrocious. Aztec kickers connected on merely eight out of sixteen field goals and missed six extra point kicks.
On the defensive side of the ball the Aztecs are a relatively weak team. Although they were 8-5 last season the Aztecs were outscored 412-387 across all their games. The Aztecs gave up 31.7 points per contest including 40 to FCS Eastern Illinois. The key for the Heels will to be to not beat themselves. As long as the offense is methodical and moves down the field slowly but surely they should not have trouble scoring. Aztec opponents scored on a staggering 41 out of 43 (95%+) red zone trips last season, of the 41 scores, 37 were touchdowns (86% of trips in the red zone). The secondary was the primary weakness of the defense. The Aztecs allowed opponent quarterbacks to complete 61% of their passes for 6.8 yards per attempt and 11.2 yards per catch. Opposing offenses racked up 3312 yards and 31 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions all season. The front seven were not particularly better when opponents dropped back, managing only two sacks per contest. The defense was better against the run hold opponents to 3.7 yards per carry and forcing 18 fumbles, 11 of which they recovered. The Heels should work to ensure that they take care of the ball when on the ground.
The trends that the Aztecs showed last season held true in their first game of the season in an easy win over Northern Arizona. In that game the Aztecs used their run game to bully Northern Arizona for most of the game. The Heels will have to stay stout on defense to prevent the Aztecs from dictating the pace of the game.
The Weekly Assignments:
The Heels should focus on containing the Aztec offense with constant pressure on Kaehler and a solid run defense. However, the Aztec receivers can be explosive and the safeties and corners will need to ensure that no one gets behind them. The Carolina offense should not have many issues, the throws will be there in the passing game and in the red zone touchdowns should be nearly a sure thing. The bottom line is that against power conference competition the Aztecs went 0-2 last season losing to Ohio State and Oregon State. As long as UNC plays like a school ranked in the top 25 this game should not be difficult to win.
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