As the public looks for Heisman hopeful Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina to wreck shop on North Carolina Thursday night, Larry Fedora's team will be looking for ways to shut down the best player in the country.
The nation's eyes will be on Williams-Brice Stadium and the Gamecocks, ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll, as they look to start a campaign that will push them closer to an ever-elusive BCS bowl bid. North Carolina, meanwhile, is looking to get a marquee win on a big stage to help boost the profile of the program in Fedora's second season.
For the Heels, led by senior quarterback Bryn Renner, that means a concentrated offensive effort to stop Clowney from exploding on them in a big way. That means more than merely avoiding a helmet-popping hit; it is a game plan to generate offensive success while limiting Clowney's tangible impact on the game.
Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson have to game-plan to neutralize Clowney. That starts with an approach that the Tar Heels already employ, a tempo-based attack. In Year 1 under Fedora, the Heels averaged 74.8 plays a game, and in 2013 North Carolina is hoping to push that number over 80, much like Clemson and Oregon have done in recent years.
Recently, Clowney admitted to The State that he was out of shape in 2012, so you can be certain the Tar Heels are going to test his conditioning Thursday night.
Anderson and Fedora want to get Clowney moving side to side, chasing upfield and then running back to the line of scrimmage to do it all again. Make the 274-pound defensive end work to get involved in plays and test his endurance in the first game of the season on a hot South Carolina evening.
Tempo alone will not stop Clowney, and a look at the most recent Gamecocks contest against Clemson proves that point. Led by offensive coordinator Chad Morris, the Tigers looked to use tempo to help neutralize Clowney. That failed miserably, as Clowney posted 4.5 sacks and seven tackles, and South Carolina walked away with a 27-17 win.
In that game, Clemson's tempo-based attack only ran 59 plays, well below its season average of 81.7. Two interceptions helped the Gamecocks, but the real story was Clemson's offense managing just 18 first downs (down from its season average of 26.4).
Without first downs, an up-tempo offense is just a three-and-out machine, and the only defense getting worn down is its own unit. Thus, North Carolina must not only use tempo but more importantly put together drives to get points while neutralizing the efforts of South Carolina's monster defensive end.
In the run game, that means balancing attacking and running away from Clowney. Either way, look for heavy doses of cut blocks early. As Clowney tries to make plays against the ground game, that approach will force the 6'6" defensive end to use his hands while avoiding linemen, backs and tight ends who are pushing to cut his legs out from under him.
The Heels are going to have to cut Clowney on zone runs to the right side of the offense because the defensive end is capable of getting down the line, gobbling up the cutback lane and destroying the running back in the process. Without a cutback lane, the zone run is less effective.
Running draws, where senior tackle James Hurst allows Clowney to push upfield and the running back slips underneath, will also factor into the Tar Heels' game plan.
Speed is Clowney's top weapon, and with the fake pass play drawing the upfield rush, North Carolina will be hoping to find space with the back taking a hand-off moving toward the line of scrimmage.
A wild card of sorts in the run game will be the quarterback position. Renner is not a true dual-threat quarterback, yet the Tar Heels' offense is built to use zone-read looks in an effort to freeze defenders. As Clowney starts to crash to the back, if Renner can keep the ball and run a couple times, it can help slow the approach of Clowney.
Through the air, North Carolina does boast a solid inside-outside punch with receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron. However, for Renner to be able to take advantage of the receiving targets, he has to be upright to make throws.
To keep Renner from being another highlight in Clowney's Heisman campaign, UNC will have to mix traditional straight drops with one-step passes, screens and roll-outs. North Carolina's left tackle, Hurst, is the No. 26 player on Matt Miller's Big Board for 2014's NFL draft, and the No. 5-ranked tackle. He is a quality left tackle with a lot of starts under his belt and an NFL future.
And like Taylor Lewan of Michigan and Antonio "Tiny" Richardson of Tennessee in 2012, Hurst is going to need help in pass protection against Clowney.
That means tight ends chipping Clowney before getting into their routes. It also means running backs and tight ends staying in to help instead of going out to catch passes. The Heels will also likely slide protection to Clowney, hoping to get the help from the guard on the defensive end.
In addition to extra bodies to help, the Heels will need to work play calls to force Clowney into different situations throughout the game. Screens to Clowney's side with immediate cuts at the line of scrimmage. Sprint-outs away from Clowney to force him to chase across the field.
Play action to Clowney to force him to respect the run first. Play-action away from Clowney in an effort to get him to chase down inside before recognizing pass, allowing Hurst to ride him to the interior. Quick-hitting passes with immediate cut blocks to keep Clowney's hands out of the passing lane.
It is going to take combining all of these elements in the run and pass games, plus going up-tempo, to stymie the efforts of Clowney.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, Clowney does not just line up at one defensive end spot and speed rush. He'll line up inside, he'll line up outside and then use his signature inside dip move, and he'll line up standing up. He's a versatile menace, and as he moves around during the game he will present new issues for the Tar Heels.
While the focus of the game is Clowney, let's not forget that South Carolina has 10 other guys on defense who are also pretty good. Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles will also pressure Renner on that defensive line. The secondary, led by corners Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton, will make completions tough to come by in the back end.
The Hurst-Clowney matchup will draw the attention of the masses, but for North Carolina this is going to be a game of first downs. The Tar Heels have to extend drives and avoid three-and-outs in order to score points and compete in this game.
If Renner and the offense can't get going, the Tar Heels' defense will be at the mercy of the physical attack of the Gamecocks, and facing a clock-gobbling 45-plus rushing attempts is not what UNC wants.
As we saw last year against Tennessee's Tiny Richardson, even when you do all of the right things against Clowney, the defensive end finds a way to make a big impact. For North Carolina, a large portion of the game will be spent hoping to avoid that play.