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October 21, 2011
Carolina will play a football game at noon on Saturday at an ACC stadium that resembles an SEC site.
The words "Welcome to Death Valley" spread across the façade between the upper and lower decks of the stadium. Sitting in the press box and looking across at it is an quite a site, particularly on a sunbathed afternoon in this college town.
Death Valley holds 86,000 people. When one stands on the field as the crowd is in full roar, it is deafening.
The entrance the Tigers make at home games is one of the unique and most fun of any school in the country. The team buses to the gate just outside the top of the hill on the end zone opposite the field house. The players touch "Howard's Rock," literally a stone a member of the class of 1919 brought from Death Valley, Calif., and presented to former Coach Frank Howard, and then they race down the hill onto the field.
Howard, former Tigers coach, had taken the name Death Valley from comments made by an opposing coach and used them to make the stadium famous across the state of South Carolina and throughout the ACC.
The rock was mounted on a pedestal in 1966, and the players began rubbing it before running down the hill.
Howard addressed the team in a way only he could that day.
"If you're going to give me 110 percent, you can rub that rock," he told the players. "If you're not, keep your filthy hands off of it."
Howard told the story the next day on his television show and a legend was born.
Football at Clemson has long been a passion at a depth too many Carolina fans unfortunately cannot fathom. This 2011 edition of the Tigers is also one of the best Clemson teams in many years.
The Tigers are 7-0 overall, 4-0 in the ACC. Their quarterback, Tajh Boyd, leads the league in passing yards per game at 287.4. He has thrown for 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
UNC's Bryn Renner is first in the league in passing efficiency, with a rating of 174.1. He has thrown for 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has led the Tar Heels to a 5-2, 1-2 start to the season.
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and UNC wideout Dwight Jones are tied for third in the ACC with 6.6 receptions per game, while Watkins is second in yards receiving with 104 a game, while Jones is averaging 98 yards.
Each has scored eight touchdowns.
UNC held the Tigers to 16 points in a Carolina victory in Chapel Hill last season. Slowing the Tigers this time is going to be far more difficult.
"We felt last year that we could really stop the run game," UNC interim head coach Everett Withers said. "We didn't feel like we'd have a ton of issues in the pass game last year. They had a number of skill guys, a good quarterback, but we thought the running back and the tight end was probably the key to everything in that offense last year.
"This year I think it's a little bit more spread out. Offensively, obviously you have Sammy Watkins out there, one of the top receivers in this conference. Tajh Boyd is one of the top quarterbacks in this conference, and you've still got Andre Ellington at the running back position that can run it. So they make you defend the entire offense."
UNC has started slowly the last two weeks, spotting Miami a 14-0 lead before Carolina's offense even ran a play a week ago. A similar start on Saturday will lead to such a roar that UNC's players and coaches will not be able to hear one another standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
"We'd love to get off to a better start," Withers said. "This week we're going to need to, playing a talented, very athletic Clemson offense, a very talented front four on defense, and playing down in Death Valley. But I think we are excited about it, looking forward to it, and it ought to be a heck of a ball game."
None of us can see into the future, but given the nature of the stadium and the talent of the opposition, here are some "musts" Carolina probably needs to accomplish if the Tar Heels hope to win:
-- Carolina cannot turn the ball over. If it does, the Tar Heels will be toast.
-- UNC needs to run the football successfully and often. Leaving UNC's defense on the field too much will create only poor results. Also, if Renner has to throw it more than the Tar Heels run it, he is likely to taking a pounding from the Tigers defensive front.
-- The running plays need to be quick-hitters that help the Tar Heels' offensive line explode off the ball and give the Tigers little time to penetrate. This plays to Giovani Bernard's strengths if he can get through the line and into the next level before getting tackled.
-- Get pressure on Boyd and hit him often. If he has as much time to throw as Miami's Jacory Harris did, the coaching staff will be asking too much of Carolina's secondary against Clemson's gifted receivers.
-- Use the H-backs/tight ends more in the passing game. The coaches need to urge Renner to get rid of the ball, and using the tight ends in the middle of the field is a great way to hurt Clemson if they double Jones or any of the other wide outs.
-- Win the kicking game. UNC needs to do a better job of protecting its punter, and it cannot let Clemson hurt it with strong kickoff returns. This phase of the game could be the deciding factor if both defenses play strong and neither team has an edge in turnovers.
-- Finally, poise. One can simply not overestimate the value of having poise against this Clemson team in Death Valley.