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Canes trying to avoid Carolina blues

University of Miami special teams coach Joe Pannunzio thought he was getting a pat on the back from offensive coordinator Mark Whipple after last Saturday's 52-17 win against Virginia. Turns out, his buddy was really razzing him.

Joe Pannunzio "Whip looked at me and said 'Man, you helped me a bunch,'" Pannunzio recalled of their encounter on Wednesday. "I said 'How is that?' He said, 'Man, I knew we couldn't punt, so I had to call good plays.'"

Pannunzio and Whipple were kidding of course. But the trouble UM has had protecting punter Matt Bosher this season (opponents have three blocks) is nothing funny to coach Randy Shannon. 

This week, Pannunzio and Shannon, who share the brunt of special teams coaching, made it a point to emphasize avoiding the same individual breakdowns in punt protection schemes that have led to the blocks. 

Last year, UM used a conventional punt scheme. Pannunzio said he switched to a spread formation this season because Miami had been having such a hard time returning punts against it and thought it would be more effective. Pannunzio said he plans to remain in the spread the rest of the season and that no personnel changes are being made this week because no one in particular has been blamed for the breakdowns. 

Shannon said the coaching staff has done a better job this week preparing players and said the breakdowns come down to "communication." But Pannunzio said he's more than willing to point the finger at himself.

"Ultimately, it's coaching," Pannunzio said. "We've got to coach them better."

> North Carolina hasn't blocked any punts this season. But linebacker Bruce Carter had three against UConn alone last season. In last year's game at Land Shark, the Tar Heels partially blocked a Bosher punt with 2:49 to play. UNC took over on its own 44 and then drove down the field for the winning touchdown.

> Despite the mistakes on special teams, Bosher has continued to have another MVP type season. He currently ranks second in the ACC in punts (42.7) and 83.3 percentage on field goals (10-12) ranks fourth in the conference. He's also handling kickoffs again for UM and doing a much better job than earlier in the year. If there is a secret to his success, consider it a coaching decision by Shannon, who has asked Bosher to kick less in practice.

"Everybody has been kept down kicking wise -- it's kind of like a pitching count," Bosher said last week. "We always kick field goals. But in most practices, we don't do much other than mental reps during practice. Everybody knows where they have to be without kicking 20 balls. It's kept everybody's legs a lot fresher."

> Pannunzio said redshirt freshman Jake Wieclaw has improved, but he simply doesn't have the leg strength to handle kickoffs. "We have a field goal guy that doesn't miss many field goals," Pannunzio said. "So, we're not going to make that switch. But [Wieclaw] is an accurate field goal kicker. He just doesn't have the leg strength. Matt can make a field goal from 55 yards. Jake is more like 45 to 50. That's still pretty good.[Wieclaw's] biggest problem is he has a very good player ahead of him."

UM FOCUSED ON CAROLINA, NOT COASTAL RACE... In case you didn't know, there is at least one member of the University of Miami football team who knows how it feels to win at North Carolina. Tight end Jimmy Graham did it his freshman year on the basketball court, helping the Canes punk some guy named Tyler Hansbrough and the eventual senior class that won a national title last March.

Jimmy Graham Graham would love to help the Canes punk some one else: former Hurricanes coach Butch Davis, whose new team has owned the Hurricanes of late. Graham was in the stands at Land Shark Stadium last season when the Tar Heels scored the Canes secondary and rallied from a 24-14 fourth quarter deficit to beat UM. Beating Carolina is something Graham wants to make sure Miami's football seniors get to experience.

"0-3 -- it's a big part, kind of a mindset of what we're doing this week," Graham said. "It's a big game for us, it's a big game for them. It's going to be sold out. It's going to be a great atmosphere. We know we're going to get an A-plus game from them. Hopefully, we bring the same."

A big part of bringing an A-plus game to Chapel Hill -- where the Hurricanes haven't won in three tries -- will be making sure players' eyes are on the field and not on the scoreboard. About a 15 minute drive down Tobacco Road, Duke and Georgia Tech will be playing in a game that means a ton to UM's season. If Georgia Tech wins the noon kickoff, they'll clinch the Coastal Division and Miami's hopes of reaching the ACC championship game will go out the window. 

Shannon has made it a point this week to make sure his players don't worry about it, comparing scoreboard watching to driving while text messaging. Although the Canes would love to play for the ACC title, it feels like Shannon's message has been well received. 

"We're not going to be thinking about Georgia Tech at all because the only thing we can control is beating North Carolina," cornerback Brandon Harris said. "Everybody wants to go undefeated when the season starts. But if we win out and go 10-2, it can give us a lot of momentum in years to come. All we really want to do is go to a big bowl game. Hopefully, the bowl picture works out for us."

WHY U SHOULD FEAR CAROLINA... The last two times I wrote blogs that started with "Why U should fear..." the Canes ended up losing to Virginia Tech and Clemson. I don't want to be accused of jinxing them, so I'll avoid it this week. But, that being said, there are plenty of reasons for U to be worried about this game.

The Tar Heels might not have first round talent at receiver like it did a year ago, but it seems like they have the perfect formula to beat UM -- a tremendous all-around defense, very good special teams and power running game that is starting to hum. Shannon said Tuesday Carolina's defense is better than Oklahoma's -- "way better."

"Watching North Carolina on tape, their record is not what they are as a football team. They're a tough football team," Shannon said. "You look at their scores, they've lost some close games in the last 2-3 minutes of a game and they've won some close in the last 2-3 minutes of a game. We're not going to take this team lightly. This team beat Virginia Tech and we lost to Virginia Tech."

It's hard to argue with Shannon when you look at a few of these facts and figures...

Robert Quinn  > The Tar Heels have forced 11 turnovers in their last four games and is ranked in the top 11 in all four major defensive categories. They rank fifth in total defense (249.4 yards per game), fifth in passing defense (157.8 yards per game), eighth in rushing defense (91.7 yards per game) and 11th in scoring defense (15.3). UNC opponents have also converted just 30.7 percent on third down,which ranks eighth in the country. 

> While Carolina's offense has suffered 13 injuries -- including to six starters -- no starters on defense have missed a game. And there are stars all over the field. Sophomore defensive end Robert Quinn, who is returning from emergency brain surgery after a tumor was discovered his senior year of high school, leads the ACC in tackles for loss (15.5) and ranks second in sacks (10). The 6-5, 270-pounder receives plenty of support from big defensive tackles Marvin Austin (6-3, 305) and Cam Thomas (6-4, 325). 

""Their front seven is outstanding," Harris said. "Oklahoma had a good interior guy, and Beal was a good end. But overall, North Carolina has the best defensive line we've seen. It's going to be a tough challenge and something very hard to overcome, but we have to fight through it."

> Offensively, despite the fact running back Shaun Draughn was lost for the season last week, Carolina continued to run the ball effectively with tailback Ryan Houston, who finished with 164 yards. The Tar Heels have run for an average of 193.8 yards over their last four games.

> On special teams, Da'Norris Searcy ranks 10th in the nation with a 15.0 average. Sophomore kicker Casey Barth is 13 of 16 on field goal attempts and Carolina ranks 16th in the country in punt return defense, allowing an average of just 4.5 yards a return.