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The Path for Stanford to Beat North Carolina in the Sun Bowl without Christian McCaffrey

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Even without their star running back, Stanford has what it takes to win

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday the Stanford Cardinal square off against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Sun Bowl, in El Paso Texas. But the Cardinal find themselves down a stud running back, which could be a problem for a run first offense. However, in the case of Stanford, they will be able to find a win without Christian McCaffrey against a formidable Tar Heel opponent.

The Opponent

But first, a look at the opposition. UNC ranks 56 in total offense with 33.1 points a game and 442 yards of total offense a game. They lean heavily on the passing attack fueled by Mitch Trubisky, who is the 14th ranked quarterback in the nation with 3,468 yards and 28 touchdowns against only four picks. On the defensive side, UNC is weaker. Giving up 24.9 points a game with 419 total yards. Of those, 235.5 are rushing yards. Posing a tantalizing weakness for Stanford. However, not all can be learned on a first glance.

Looking at the 8-4 record of the Tar Heels, one notices losses to NC State, Georgia and Virginia Tech, all schools that excel at running the football. They also went down to the wire with Pitt and FSU, two more teams that are phenomenal, run first teams. Teams North Carolina beat, like Miami or Virginia, had problems because their pass reliant offensive schemes had trouble getting off the ground.

Passing offenses struggle against UNC largely because great talents like Des Lawrence, M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles, are the backbone of the secondary and the defense. They combine for 192 tackles, two fumble recoveries, 7.5 tackles for loss, 21 passes defended and one sack. They are a secondary that leaves an imprint in tackles, not in interceptions. They do not miss tackles, they get players behind the line of scrimmage on the blitz and they can get after passes in the air. These guys are the best part of the defense and will be matching Stanford’s secondary play step for step the entire game.

On the offense, the departure of Elijah Hood will not slow this team down a bit, he may not even be the best back on the team. Meet T.J. Logan. While he only has 578 rushing yards on the season, he has 1,509 all purpose yards on the year with 12 total touchdowns. Of those totals, he has recorded 690 yards and two touchdowns on kick returns. He is shifty, he is fast and he will make plays everywhere.

Through the air Trubisky has plenty of weapons to throw at an adversary. Ryan Switzer is the most notable, with 1,027 yards and five touchdowns. But he also has Bug Howard, who has 768 total yards and seven touchdowns. Or Jason Thomas who has grabbed four touchdowns, along with Austin Proehl and his 506 yards with three touchdowns.

With weapons all over the roster on defense and offense, how does this team lose to Stanford? I’ll tell you.

Keys to the Win

#1 - The biggest problem with stand in the pocket and deliver strikes quarterbacks is how much a messy, sloppy pocket bothers them. Solomon Thomas and company have recorded 35 sacks on the year. They will get to him and get him to the ground. The underestimated playmaker on the defense is Peter Kalambayi, who has 3.5 sacks and six tackles for loss at the outside linebacker spot. If he can bring an extra element to the defense, it will be far too much for UNC.

#2 - Bryce Love is for real. I have been banging the Love fanboy drum all season long. Now is his time to shine. When McCaffrey sat out against Notre Dame, he rushed for 126 yards in an offense that was less creative and plodding. Now he will be in the new, re-vamped Keller Chryst addition that will allow him more success. Not to mention that the UNC run defense is their weakness.

#3 - Keller Chryst is a big difference for this team. While UNC only gives up 183 passing yards a game, not all 183 yard games are the same. While you can throw dink and dunk passes all game for the total, Chryst is not that guy. If they are going to give him around only 200 yards, he is going to get a couple deep passes complete and he will break the defense over the top to open the run game. He is a big reason this team has bounced back.

#4 - The secondary of Stanford has been one of their finest qualities. It will be strength against strength as Trubisky faces off against Quenton Meeks, Justin Reid, and Zach Hauffpauir. They have 20 passes defended and two interceptions. With the pressure the front seven will bring, and the problems Trubisky has against that pressure, they will be able to do more than their share of the work.

#5 - Against the average team, on the average day, UNC will give up over 200 yards on the ground. Now the Stanford Cardinal, the ground and pound dynasty, will face off against one of the tastiest matchup advantages of the year for the Cardinal’s rushing attack. The boys in the trenches will eat on Friday.

#6 - The final reason that Stanford has the upper hand: Pedigree. They have been to the big stage and found success more than the team they face. Over the last five years, Stanford is 3-2 in bowl games against UNC’s 2-3. The quality of opponents is also vastly different. Stanford has faced Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in big bowls. UNC has faced Baylor (not a bad team), Rutgers, Cincinnati, Missouri and a down Tennessee team. One team has been there before and won, one team has not.

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