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Behind enemy lines: North Carolina

Written by Sam Werner on .

This week, I enlisted the help of Andrew Carter, who covers North Carolina football for the Raleigh News & Observer to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Tar Heels. Here are Andrew's responses to a couple of questions...

1. What are the reasonable expectations for Marquise Williams as he steps into the role of full-time starter? Did he show enough in spot duty behind Bryn Renner to inspire confidence? How will the offense look different with him under center?
The offense is still basically the same, except that Williams has much more mobility. That's beneficial for two reasons. For one, Larry Fedora's spread offense simply works better with a more mobile quarterback who can get out of trouble and keep plays alive with his running ability. Second, UNC's offensive line has struggled this season, and Renner's lack of mobility really hindered the offense. Williams is much better suited to escape pressure.
As for how well-suited he is to be the full-time starter – I'd say there's a lot more confidence in Williams now than there would have been at the beginning of the season. He has played well and exceeded expectations, which weren't all that high for him after he was out of school last spring because of an academic suspension. Before Renner's season-ending injury, he and Williams had rotated, with Renner seeing probably about 70 percent of the snaps.
That rotation had been in place since after the Virginia Tech game earlier last month. Renner sat that out with a foot injury, and Williams played well – but threw two interceptions – in his first career start. Williams is still raw, but he's come a long way this season. The coaching staff has opened up the playbook to him. His running ability adds a dynamic to the offense that had been missing. Renner is the better quarterback, but with how the offense is built this season – an inexperienced offensive line, no lead running back – Williams might be the better fit.

2. How have teams been able to shut down Eric Ebron this year? He only had two catches against Virginia, but the offense still put up 45 points. Who are other receivers that need to step up if Ebron is double-teamed?
A lot of teams have double-teamed Ebron this season. In fact, I'd say he's faced that at least a few times in every game. He's in a different category athletically, and there's a reason why he's expected to be a first-round pick in the draft in April. So, naturally, he commands a lot of attention from opposing defenses.
On the other hand, too, UNC at times could do a better job of getting him the ball. Sometimes he's not as involved in the offense as he needs to be, and that's not always because the defense has done a great job covering him. It's also just a product of Fedora's offense that a lot of receivers are going to touch the ball.
While Ebron is the Tar Heels' best offensive player, they aren't without some other good receivers. They're all young, too. Bug Howard, a freshman, is tall and fast and will be a good player. He's a deep threat down the field. Ryan Switzer, another freshman, can make some plays out of the slot. And Quinshad Davis, a sophomore, has all-ACC potential. Behind Ebron, he's UNC's second-most reliable receiving target.

3. After a rough start, the UNC defense has held three consecutive opponents under 20 points. How much of that is defensive improvement and how much of it is the quality of opponent the Tar Heels faced in those three games? Are there any defensive players in particular Pitt will need to watch out for Saturday?
I think it's both. It's easy to say that the competition hasn't been as good, and that's true. UNC's most difficult games were pretty much all in the first half of the season: South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Miami. The Tar Heels lost to all those teams, and also lost to East Carolina, which gave UNC by far its most embarrassing defeat of the season.
Boston College, N.C. State and Virginia aren't what I'd call good teams, but UNC's defense deserves some credit, too. This is a defense that had a way of making good offenses look great, average offenses look good and bad offenses look even better than average. And in recent weeks, UNC hasn't done that.
The big change is that the Tar Heels have pretty much eliminated the big plays that badly hurt them earlier this season. There haven't been the breakdowns in pass coverage that we routinely saw in the first half of the year. In fact, UNC has only allowed one passing touchdown in its past four games. That's a huge accomplishment for this group. During that span, the Tar Heels have also intercepted eight passes.
Some players to watch on this defense: Kareem Martin, the senior defensive end, has played really well during the past three or four games. The pressure he's putting on opposing quarterbacks has made a big difference in the improvement of the pass defense. In the secondary, Tre Boston is a wild card. He can make a play or two, but has also been known for giving up a lot. But he has been more consistent in recent weeks.

4. Year two of the Larry Fedora era hasn't exactly gone according to plan in Chapel Hill. How have the players and coaches handled the losses in a year where many pegged them as division contenders? Is there confidence that Fedora is still the right guy for the Tar Heels?
When UNC was 1-5, it would have been fair to call it one of the most disappointing teams in the country. Even with all the Tar Heels lost – Giovani Bernard, three offensive linemen who were drafted, their two best defensive players (Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick) – there was still optimism and a lot of belief among the coaches that this team had a realistic chance of winning the Coastal.
Hasn't turned out that way, obviously. But I think the staff does deserve some credit for keeping the team together amid some difficult circumstances. The loss to Miami was especially brutal – the Hurricanes scored the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds to play – and it would have been easy, and a little cliché, if this team had just packed it in. Instead, UNC has responded with three straight wins. Yeah, the competition has something to do with it, but UNC was dominant in two of those games, and beat Boston College and Virginia as badly as just about any team has.
Fedora is still on good footing. Yeah, the fans weren't happy with the ugly start. And no, even a 7-5 finish won't erase what happened earlier in the year. But I think the sane fans understand it will take a while for him and his staff to bring in their preferred players and really get their system in place. Fedora inherited some top-end talent, for sure, but UNC doesn't have a lot of depth. The top 15 players are good, but the lack of depth among players Nos. 25-60 are a big part of the problems. There just isn't much there, and UNC had three recruiting classes effectively go to waste for a variety of reasons: the NCAA investigation that hung over Butch Davis' final year, the uncertainty that surrounded the program after that, under interim coach Everett Withers, and then the staff change when Fedora took over.
If Fedora's going to fix the mess, it will take more than two seasons. I think people are starting to realize that.

Thank again to Andrew for helping us out this week. You can read his blog here and follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter.

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About the Predators - 11-15-13

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

A preview of the Predators.

When and where: 7 p.m. EST. Consol Energy Center.

TV: Root Sports; SportsSouth.

Record: 8-8-2, 18 points. The Predators are in last place in the Central Division.

Leading Scorer: David Legwand (right), 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists).

Last Game: 3-1 road loss to the Islanders, Tuesday. Marek Mazanec made 30 saves for the Predators.

Last Game against the Penguins: 5-1 road loss, March 22, 2012. Pekka Rinne made 18 saves for the Predators.

Predators Player We Would Bet Money On Scoring: Matt Cullen. He has points in his past three games (regular and postseason) against the Penguins.

Ex-Penguins on the Predators: None.

Ex-Predators on the Penguins: Tom Fitzgerald, assistant to the general manager; Ray Shero (Shero is a former assistant general manager of the Predators); Tomas Vokoun, G.

Useless Predators Trivia Vaguely Related to the Penguins: Vokoun is the Predators' all-time leader in games played (383) and wins (161) by a goaltender.

Best Predators Video We Could Find: A line brawl between the Predators and Flames in the 2003-04 season which featured a goaltender fight between Vokoun and Calgary's Mikka Kiprusoff:

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury (10-5-0, 2.07 GAA, . 921 SV%) for the Penguins. Marek Mazenec (0-1-0, 2.75 GAA, .912 SV%) for the Predators.

Injuries: For the Penguins, defensemen Kris Letang (illness) and Paul Martin ("lower body") are probable. Right winger Chuck Kobasew ("lower body"), defenseman Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) and goaltender Tomas Vokoun (blood clots) are on injured reserve. For the Predators, center Mike Fisher ("lower body") is day-to-day due. Goaltender Pekke Rinne (hip) is on injured reserve..

Potential lines and defensive pairings: The Penguins primary lines and defensive pairings at today's morning skate were:

14 Chris Kunitz - 87 Sidney Crosby - 9 Pascal Dupuis
36 Jussi Jokinen - 71 Evgeni Malkin - 18 James Neal
19 Beau Bennett - 16 Brandon Sutter - 22 Matt D'Agostini
15 Tanner Glass - 46 Joe Vitale - 27 Craig Adams

-The Penguins rotated their defensemen this morning. Consider this a guess:

3 Olli Maata - 58 Kris Letang
44 Brooks Orpik - 7 Paul Martin
2 Matt Niskanen - 41 Robert Bortuzzo

-Consider this a guess at the Predators' lines and defensive pairings assuming Fisher doesn't play

57 Gabriel Bourque - 11 David Legwand - 27 Patric Hornqvist
33 Colin Wilson - 13 Nick Spaling - 25 Viktor Stalberg
24 Eric Nystrom - 7 Matt Cullen - 9 Filip Forsberg
26 Matt Hendricks - 28 Paul Gaustad - 15 Craig Smith

3 Seth Jones - 6 Shea Weber
59 Roman Josi - 8 Kevin Klein
64 Victor Bartley - 4 Ryan Ellis

 

Notes:

-The last time the Penguins played the Predators, this happened:

-Kunitz has appeared in 599 career games.

-Deryk Engelland has appeared in 199 career games.

-Fisher is expected to take warm-ups and make a decision on playing tonight.

-The Predators will be finishing a franchise-record seven-game, 17-day road trip tonight.

-The Predators have lost three consecutive games.

-Our live blog begins at approximately 6 p.m. Please tune in.

(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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WVU live chat at 2 p.m.

Written by Stephen J. Nesbitt on .

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WPIAL semifinal predictions

Written by Mike White on .

Tonight's live WPIAL semifinal blog will come from the Woodland Hills-Upper St. Clair game. Follow the blog for score updates of other semifinal games. If you have a score update, tweet it with #wpial.

Below are semifinal predictions. But before that, here is one piece of news:

Aaron Krepps has resigned as football coach at Belle Vernon. Krepps, a former star player at Belle Vernon, was the Leopards' coach for five seasons. His record was 22-28 but he did guide the Leopards to the playoffs every year.

Now for WPIAL semifinal predictions. Last week's record 14-2.

CLASS AAAA

Upper St. Clair vs. Woodland Hills - The biggest key to this game is injuries. Woodland Hills' 1,000-yard rusher Miles Sanders hasn't played for a few games. Upper St. Clair's Trevor Morrow missed some time last week. It might be easier to pick a winner if we knew the status of those players. That being said, whoever wins up front on the lines will win. These two met at Baldwin in last year's semifinals with Woodland Hills cruising to a win. It will be different this time. Winner: Upper St. Clair

Luigi Lista-BrinzaPenn-Trafford vs. Central Catholic - For getting his team to the semifinals, Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane would be a good candidate for coach of the year. But Central Catholic's lines and running game is just too good for the Warriors to advance another round. Luigi Lista-Brinza's running (pictured) will be a major reason why Central Catholic stays undefeated after losing in the semifinals in 2010 and 2011. Winner: Central Catholic.

CLASS AAA

Central Valley vs. Thomas Jefferson - This is one of the best games in any classification. Central Valley won last week because of some big plays. Thomas Jefferson usually is pretty good at stopping big plays. Winner: Thomas Jefferson.

West Allegheny vs. Franklin Regional - The key is whether Franklin Regional's defense can withstand West Chayse DillonAllegheny's running game. West Allegheny has four running backs with at least 300 yards rushing, led by Chayse Dillon (pictured) with 974. QB Andrew Koester has thrown for more than 1,200 yards. Oh yeah. West Allegheny's defense is pretty good, too. Franklin Regional will need a big game from QB Charan Singh to have a chance. Winner: West Allegheny.

CLASS AA

Beaver vs. Aliquippa - The last time Beaver was in a WPIAL championship, Pat Tarquinio was the coach, a kid named Shiloh Icenhour the star running back and they beat a Jeannette team that featured a future Parade All-American quarterback in Dante Wiley. That was 1982. Unfortunately for Beaver fans, they will have to wait even longer to see their team back in the title game. Winner: Aliquippa.

Beaver Falls vs. South Fayette - This is a terrific matchup of teams with different styles. South Fayette likes to pass. Beaver Falls likes to run. That being said, I think the play of Beaver Falls QB Danny Stratton and South Fayette's running game could have a huge bearing on this contest. One thing makes me wonder a little about Beaver Falls' defense. The Tigers struggled to beat Beaver, 30-24. Beaver likes to pass. So does South Fayette. Winner: Beaver Falls.

CLASS A

Clairton vs. Sto-Rox - I never like to count out a Clairton team, especially one that has won 22 WPIAL playoff games in a row. But the Bears' defense has showed some holes this season, and Sto-Rox puts a lot of stress on defenses. But Sto-Rox's defense better be on top of its game. Winner: Sto-Rox.

Neshannock vs. North Catholic - North Catholic lost starting QB Adam Sharlow when these two teams met late in the season. I thought the loss of Sharlow might doom North Catholic's chances of getting to Heinz Field. But P.J. Fulmore has done a nice job at QB and the Trojans' defense has been very good all season. Controlling Neshannock QB Ernie Burkes will be a key. Winner: North Catholic.

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Empty Netter Assists - 11-15-13

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

Penguins

-Dan Bylsma and Peter Laviolette are BFFs.

-“It’s kind of cool playing against them, but I think when you get in trouble when you play against them is when you start watching them." - Predators rookie defenseman Seth Jones on facing the Penguins tonight.

-When the Penguins' offense struggles, there appears to be a correlation to their offensive zone faceoffs.

-Former Penguins defenseman Peter Taglianetti's life was impacted by a serious hip ailment.

-The Penguins' outdoor game at Chicago March 1 has been moved from NBC Sports Network to NBC.

-“He’s making smart decisions, his game’s under control, he’s first over the boards for penalty kill and he’s matched against other team’s best players. It’s best for Simon’s game to be focused on those components right now, and he’s played well.” - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach John Hynes on defenseman Simon Despres (above).

-Eric Hartzell made 37 saves for the Wheeling Nailers in a 1-0 home shutout of the Elmira Jackals.

-The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins assigned defenseman Harrison Ruopp to Wheeling.

-Happy 36th birthday to former Penguins defenseman Richard Lintner (right). Acquired midway through the 2002-03 season along with Joel Bouchard, Rico Fata and Mikael Samuelsson in a deal which sent Mike Wilson, Alex Kovalev, Janne Laukkanen and Dan LaCouture to the Rangers, Lintner's entire Penguins career amounted to 19 games and five points that campaign. In the 2003 offseason, he joined Djurgarden of the Elitserien in Sweden. He currently plays for HK Dukla Trencin of the Slovakian Extraliga.

-Happy 68th birthday to former Penguins forward Jim Shires. Acquired midway through the 1972-73 season in a deal which sent Joe Noris to the Blues, Shire's Penguins' career amounted to 18 games and three points that campaign. After spending all of 1972-73 with San Diego of the WHL, Shires was released from the organization.

-After the Jump: The Panthers and Blackhawks pull off a late night trade.

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