Chapel Hill, NC (SportsNetwork.com) - The 21st-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels face their first FBS foe of the season when they welcome the San Diego State Aztecs to Kenan Stadium on Saturday night.
North Carolina eased into the 2014 campaign with a matchup against FCS member Liberty. However, the Tar Heels had some trouble with the Flames, falling behind, 22-21, in the third quarter before pulling away for a 56-29 victory. The No. 21 ranking that UNC currently owns is the highest it has ever been under head coach Larry Fedora. In fact, by entering the year in the AP Top-25, the Tar Heels were nationally ranked for the first time since Fedora came to town in 2012.
San Diego State also faced an opponent from below the FBS ranks in its season opener, dropping Northern Arizona in a 38-7 final. The Aztecs are not a team that should be overlooked, as they have been to a bowl game in three of the last four seasons, during which they have never had fewer than eight victories.
In the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl, these teams met for the first and only time. The Tar Heels managed a 20-13 victory in that meeting.
Offense was not the problem for North Carolina against Liberty, as the Tar Heels piled up 443 yards and 29 first downs. The balance they showed was also impressive, with 235 yards coming through the air and 208 on the ground.
Although Marquise Williams started under center, the Tar Heels' quarterback situation looks like it may be a fluid one all season. Williams threw for 169 yards and two touchdowns on 19-of-29 passing, while also rushing for 52 yards and two scores. However, he was also intercepted twice. Mitch Trubisky (10- of-16, 66 yards, TD, INT) also got a decent amount of playing time.
"They both did a really good of their decision making throughout the game with the things we asked them to do as far as where they go with the ball. I thought they managed the game pretty well," Fedora said. "Marquise will be our starting quarterback and we will use Mitch as we need to throughout a game."
No receiver really separated themselves in the win over Liberty, with the 29 total completions spread among 10 different players. Ryan Switzer had a team- high eight catches, but he had only 43 yards. His longest reception was only 10 yards. Quinshad Davis (three receptions, 43 yards) and Mack Hollins (two receptions, 40 yards) were the more dangerous play-making threats.
Williams was one of five players to have at least 40 yards rushing for the Tar Heels. with Charles Brunson (54 yards, TD) the top option on the ground.
While the offense appeared to be in mid-season form, the defense struggled at times. The Tar Heels had nearly twice as many first downs as the Flames (29-15), but they still gave up 346 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in as many trips to the red zone. However, opportunistic play helped them pull away for the win. The Heels forced four turnovers, scoring 28 points off them.
Kenny Scott (eight tackles) had one of the team's three interceptions, and Jacob Hagen finished with eight stops and a fumble recovery
Despite winning by 31 points, San Diego State actually fell below 400 yards of total offense against NAU, although by just a single yard. The Aztecs only ran 66 plays and made the most of them, scoring four touchdowns on five visits to the red zone, while converting 6-of-12 third-down tries.
Quinn Kaehler was under center for the Aztecs and he performed admirably, although without really producing a ton of excitement. He completed 18-of-29 pass attempts and finished with 205 yards and a touchdown to match and interception. He did a solid job of spreading the wealth, however, with completions to 10 different receivers.
Eric Judge (five receptions, 51 yards) and Ezell Ruffin (four receptions, 53 yards) were the only two of that group to have more than 35 yards receiving.
The real star of the game was running back Donne Pumphrey, who had 111 of the team's 194 rushing yards. He carried the ball 19 times and scored two touchdowns. Chase Price provided a nice change of pace and tallied 45 yards and a score on 11 carries.
Despite his strong play, Pumphrey feels there are still improvements to be made.
"I think I played all right," Pumphrey said. "The offensive line, they blocked pretty well, and the fullbacks, they also opened up holes, and overall as an offense I feel we can get better."
The Aztecs were also sharp on defense, holding the Lumberjacks to just 312 yards of total offense and 14 first downs. The seven points they allowed was also a nice sign for a team that surrendered 31.7 points per game a year ago. Malik Smith made plays all over the field to lead the team, posting seven tackles, including one for loss, and three pass breakups.