The Sun Bowl: by the numbers
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Whether it is for your fantasy bowl picking game or for other more nefarious reasons, any edge can help this time of year. Here is a look at how Stanford and North Carolina match-up from a numbers standpoint.
The North Carolina Tar Heels rank 23rd in the nation in passing yards per game with 294.3 behind the arm of junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Senior receiver Ryan Switzer led the team with 1,027 receiving yards, but did not lead the team in receiving touchdowns. That honor went to senior receiver Bug Howard who had seven touchdowns to Switzer’s five.
Stanford is not what one would call a passing team. Although junior quarterback Keller Chryst has definitely looked the part in Sun Bowl practices, the Cardinal is not a quarterback-led team. Unfortunately, the running back who leads them is not in El Paso, as we all know by now. Chryst threw for just 837 yards this season, compared to Trubisky’s whopping 3,468. Chryst also was not a full-time starter until Oct. 29 at Arizona. The Cardinal has won five in a row since then.
Without 1,603 yard rusher Christian McCaffrey in the backfield, the Cardinal will lean on sophomore Bryce Love. Love carried the ball 90 times this season for 664 yards and three touchdowns – almost as many as UNC’s starter, junior Elijah Hood who had 858 yards this season and eight touchdowns. With McCaffrey in the lineup Stanford ranked 34th in the nation in rushing offense in 2016.
The Stanford defense ranks 36th in the nation in yards allowed per game with 365.6. Of those 365.6, 218.9 were through the air, which is definitely where the concern will be against the Tar Heels. The Cardinal defense’s secondary is ranked 50th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game. Senior strong safety Dallas Lloyd finished the season with three interceptions which tied him for ninth in the PAC-12.
The Cardinal will look to junior defensive end Solomon Thomas from Coppell, Texas, to have a big game putting pressure on Trubisky. Thomas led Stanford with seven sacks, tying him for fifth in the PAC-12. Thomas also racked up 13 tackles for loss and should be a huge factor against any run game that the Tar Heels might turn to in the event of bad weather.
Where the offense and defense are a strength of the 16th ranked Stanford Cardinal, the North Carolina Tar Heels have tended to rely mainly on their high-powered offense. The team ranks 68th in total defense, having allowed 418.5 yards per game and a total of 38 touchdowns in 12 games this season. The biggest issue for UNC heading into their matchup with the Cardinal may be that the team gives up a whopping 235.5 rushing yards per game, which places them at 113th in the nation.
Not known as a defensive team, the Tar Heels will need a huge performance from their defensive stars in order to have a chance against the outstanding Stanford line and running back Love. Sophomore linebacker Andre Smith led the team in tackles with 110 and junior linebacker Cole Holcomb was second with 105. Both will be counted on to get pressure and stop Love near the line and hopefully not once he reaches the second level.
We hear very often that special teams can make the difference in close games and even more so in bowl games when coaches have even more time to come up with gadget plays. The Tar Heels already rank third nationally in kick return average with 27.22 yards per return thanks to senior returner T.J. Logan. Stanford ranks 60th, near the middle of the pack, in kick-off yards allowed. It appears that UNC has a definite advantage here.
In the kicking game, Stanford’s senior kicker Conrad Ukropina connects on 81.8% compared to UNC’s senior Nick Weiler’s 73.7%. Weiler however has connected from 54 and is 3-of-4 from 50+ compared to Ukropina’s 52 and 2-of-2 from 50+. The longest field goal in Sun Bowl history was in 1977 with a 62 yard shot by Tony Franklin of Texas A&M.
The weather forecast currently says that it will not rain during the Sun Bowl, but that has changed thrice in the last four days. Everything that the Tar Heels have going for them is predicated on speed and the ability to move the ball through the air. This will not work should it rain or at least that is the popularly held belief in the football world. Rain could spell disaster for North Carolina.
Should the rain hold off, UNC has the special teams advantage. They also have the passing advantage and should gain at least one touchdown over an iffy Stanford secondary.
Where the real advantage lies is with the Stanford running game. Christian McCaffrey was only one man. Without an all-world offensive line, he was an NFL talent but was not a 1,000-yard rusher. Bryce Love was still a four-star recruit and is a speedy and shifty back who could have started for any other PAC-12 school were he not stuck behind McCaffrey. Against a very bad UNC rushing defense, things could go very badly for the Tar Heels.
I will hold off on a game prediction, but I will say that the Sun Bowl rushing record was last set by a PAC-12 running back against an iffy rushing defense in a 56-21 route by Oregon over USF in the 74th Sun Bowl in 2007. That day Jonathan Stewart rushed for 253 yards.