Heels, Deacs, Devils open football action tonight

Published 12:01 am Friday, September 3, 2021

By Hank Kurz Jr.

AP Sports Writer

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell will get much of the attention this season from defenses preparing to slow the No. 10 Tar Heels.

He’s gotten plenty from Virginia Tech as the teams prepare for their season opener tonight, but Howell is far from the only Tar Heel what has the Hokies’ attention.

“There’s a lot to kind of unwrap with him and their offense,” Hokies coach Justin Fuente said. “First of all, they can run the football. It’s not just a situation where they’re dropping back and throwing it all the time.”

Virginia Tech got to see all that first-hand last season in a 56-45 loss. Howell threw for three touchdowns, but the Tar Heels also ran for 399 yards.

The good news for the Hokies is that running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome have all moved on to the NFL, leaving Howell having to bring along new playmakers.

“I’m just really excited to see what we’ve got,” the quarterback said. “We really don’t know what type of team we have. And we’ll know pretty soon on Friday night.”

Coach Mack Brown said the presence of Howell and high expectations make it seem like the Tar Heels have “had sugar thrown all over us,” but added, “If we’re doing our job, we’re going to have those expectations.”

To help meet those lofty expectations, the Tar Heels brought former assistant Larry Porter back as a running backs coach and assistant special teams coordinator. Brown said the team is looking for more out of its special teams in 2021.

“We’ve never worked best-against-best this much in special teams and we’ve never worked this much live in preseason,” Brown said.

“So we have really made an effort to see progress. I like our plan better. I like our philosophy better. We’re all on the same page.”

Some other things to watch when North Carolina plays at Virginia Tech:

Fans will be allowed to fill Lane Stadium for the first time since the 2019 season, a span of 647 days.

The last time North Carolina played at Virginia Tech, the game went six overtimes — and Atlantic Coast Conference record — before the Hokies prevailed 43-41. Howell threw for five of his career total of 68 TD passes in that game. His next touchdown pass will make him the Tar Heels’ career leader.

Duke vs. Charlotte

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

Duke spent an offseason working to rebuild chemistry, confidence and cleaner execution. The Blue Devils get their first indication tonight as to how much progress they’ve made.

Duke travels to Charlotte for an instate road opener, which marks the first time a power-conference team has visited the 49ers’ campus stadium. It comes after a two-win season that represented a huge stumble for a Duke program that had become a regular bowl team under longtime coach David Cutcliffe.

“I think the biggest thing you find out: have you done all the little things as a coach to be disciplined to take care of the ball, to be penalty-free, all of those little things that are a real test in the opener?” Cutcliffe said.

The Blue Devils’ last win came on Halloween in a lopsided margin (53-19) against the 49ers, which marked one of just six games Will Healy’s squad got to play due to cancellations and postponements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That included just two home games for the Conference USA program, and none before late October, in what Healy described as a “terrible experience” for his players.

This year looks a little better. In addition to Duke’s visit, the 49ers will play two power-conference teams in the same season for the first time when they visit Illinois in October.

“These guys have sacrificed a lot to be able to have a chance to play football games,” Healy said. “This is what makes it fun, for them to be rewarded with a home football game against an ACC opponent. And we’re going to figure out how good we are very quickly.”

Some other things to know about Friday’s Duke-Charlotte game:

FIXED?

Duke was the Bowl Subdivision’s worst team last year in protecting the football, racking up 39 turnovers – at least 14 more than any other team. That included a national-high 15 interceptions from Chase Brice, who has since transferred to Appalachian State.

The Charlotte win last year was one of just two games in which Duke committed fewer than two turnovers.

HOLMBERG’S DEBUT

Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg is atop the depth chart to take over for Brice in what would be his first career start.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Holmberg has appeared in seven games and missed the 2019 season with a preseason knee injury. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 161 yards with two interceptions last year and also offers the ability to move the chains with his legs.

He was elected as one of Duke’s three captains after Cutcliffe praised his leadership with teammates through the summer.

“You almost could see it coming for all the right reasons,” Cutcliffe said.

LOOKING FOR A FIRST

Charlotte is 0-6 against power-conference teams in its nine-season history, including all three matchups with Atlantic Coast Conference programs.

LONG RUN

Cutcliffe is in his 14th season at Duke to tie Alabama’s Nick Saban for sixth among the nation’s longest coaching tenures in the power conferences.

Old Dominion vs. Wake

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

Ricky Rahne has waited a long time to make his debut as Old Dominion’s coach on the sideline.

His Monarchs visit Wake Forest tonight in what will be both their delayed debut under the former Penn State assistant and their return to the field after the school canceled fall sports last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our team has been working a long time to play in this game and quite frankly, we’re ready to go,” Rahne said.

It will mark the Conference USA program’s first game since a 38-22 loss against Charlotte in on Nov. 30, 2019. Rahne was named head coach nine days later after spending the previous six seasons on the Nittany Lions’ staff, including two as offensive coordinator. He had also coached previously at Vanderbilt.

Friday’s game comes one day shy of a year when Rahne was originally scheduled to open his tenure with the Monarchs against the same opponent, with the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Demon Deacons slated to visit ODU in a neighboring-state matchup.

“We’re watching old tape and we’re really just getting ready for anything,” Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman said of preparing for ODU. We obviously have no idea what they’re going to do. It is difficult and it’s a challenge, but we prepare in the summer and in camp for everything.”

Wake Forest played just a nine-game schedule last year amid an extended late-season pause due to COVID-19 protocols, ending with a loss to Wisconsin in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Demon Deacons are starting their push for a sixth straight bowl game.

Some other things to know about Friday’s ODU-Wake Forest game:

CHANGES

Old Dominion went 1-11 in its last season and hasn’t won a game in more than two full years, and there’s been a lot of turnover since. Old Dominion has just 11 starters and 26 letterwinners back from the 2019 team this year.

FEW TURNOVERS

Wake Forest was one of the nation’s best teams last year at protecting the football, committing just one turnover through the first seven games. The Demon Deacons stumbled after emerging from their COVID-19 pause with six turnovers in the final two games, including four interceptions from Hartman against the Badgers. “They’re a team that if they get an advantage in turnover margin,” Rahne said, “their winning percentage is through the roof.”

DEVELOPMENTAL GOALS

The Demon Deacons have thrived under coach Dave Clawson as a program that leans on developing players instead of securing top-ranked recruits. So Clawson is looking at the opener as an opportunity to build depth.

“We’d like to play a lot of people,” Clawson said, adding: “We’ve got to play guys and let them get game experience. And at times when you do it, you’ve got to live with some mistakes.”

The Demon Deacons will be back to normal fan attendance after limited-capacity crowds last year.

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