2016 Sun Bowl: Six players to watch for UNC-Stanford
UNC will take on the Stanford Cardinal in the Sun Bowl but who are the key players for both teams?
On December 30th, the North Carolina Tar Heels will play in their biggest game this season as they will travel to El Paso to take on Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
The Heels struggled down the stretch, costing themselves a shot at redemption in the ACC championship game. Going into the game against Duke this season, it appeared as if the Heels were on the right track but that night the season seemed to fall apart.
The Heels lost to their rival Duke, and NC State in the final weekend of the season, eliminating them from Coastal contention.
A loss against Stanford would be the third loss in the last four games, which would leave more questions than answers around this team.
In order for the Heels to win against Stanford, the Heels will need peak performances from their three key players. If Stanford, who has under performed in their own right, wants to win their three players must continue to dominate.
Jones will be playing in his final game for the Tar Heels. In early December, Jones tossed his name in the hat for the NFL Draft. The defensive lineman has had a great career as a Tar Heel, despite the overall struggles of the defense.
The biggest struggle for the defense has been the inability to stop the run. The last couple of seasons, the Heels have not gotten penetration in the trenches, causing the run defense to struggle.
While 2015 Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey is out, Bryce Love is still a fully capable running back.
Stanford has an impressive rushing attack, even without McCaffrey. Jones is one of the leaders of the defense, and in his last game, it will be interesting to see how he gets his teammates to respond to such a great rushing team.
The Cardinal features one of the best defenses in the country. The front line of Stanford features big defensive end Solomon Thomas. Thomas, a sophomore, was one of the most sought after recruits in high school, a consensus five-star player.
Oct 15, 2015; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal defensive tackle Solomon Thomas (90) celebrates after a tackle in the second quarter against the UCLA Bruins in a NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas leads the Stanford team in sacks, and has thirteen tackles for loss, which is tops on the team.
Anytime the Heels run the ball, there is a good chance Thomas could get his hands on the running back.
Thomas is great at getting through the offensive line, and getting in the backfield.
Thomas is going to have his hands full with trying to get to Mitch Trubisky.
In the Georgia game, which featured the best defense Trubisky has seen this season, it appeared early that he was rushed. If the Cardinal is going to have any success at speeding Trubisky up, it will come from Thomas’ ability to get to the QB.
Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
With the absence of Elijah Hood in the bowl game, Logan will be heavy relied on in the running game.
TJ and Elijah Hood have virtually split carries this year, much to the dismay of some fans. Logan, the Greensboro native has been phenomenal in all aspects, even including his kick returning.
Logan has been sensational this season, out of the backfield, and lined up as a receiver. TJ has recorded seven rushing touchdowns, and three receiving touchdowns. He is also averaging almost six yards per carry.
Many believe Elijah Hood should carry more of the load, but even in split carries, both have had great seasons.
The Tar Heels running game will play a crucial part in the Heels offense this game. It’s certain the front four of the Cardinal will be ready to stop the run, but the more pressure than can be taken off Trubisky, the better.
If Logan can continue what he has done this season, the Heels will have a great shot to win this game.
Lloyd could very well be the x-factor in the secondary for the Cardinal. He has had a stellar senior season, leading his team in interceptions, and coming in second in tackles. Lloyd has shown all year that he has a nose for the ball, and he is great when tackling in the open field.
Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Lloyd, a former quarterback in his own right, will be crucial for Stanford in trying to turn Mitch Trubisky over.
Trubisky has only thrown four interceptions all season, and if the Heels running game struggles, the team will be forced to throw the ball more than usual.
If Lloyd can sit back in the secondary, and keep Trubisky from completing a high percentage of his passes, it could spell trouble for the Tar Heels, whose running game will be lacking without Elijah Hood. If they can force interceptions, Stanford could make this an ugly game quick.
Trubisky is by far the most important player for the Heels this game. In what many believe could be his last game as a Heel, Trubisky must be near spotless in order to get a UNC victory. Trubisky is completing 69% of his passes this season, and anything near that clip could be great for the Heels.
Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Trubisky could also help his draft stock big time this game.
Having a big performance in a bowl game, against a great team will open even more eyes. Since the Georgia game, the only question around Trubisky has been if he can play well in the spotlight.
A big time game against Stanford could go a long ways in proving those doubters, and nobody would like to prove those doubters wrong more, than Mitch Trubisky.
If Mitch can get a solid contribution from TJ Logan, it should help relieve some pressure, and allow him to be himself.
If he plays anything like he did for a majority of the season, Trubisky could not only help the Tar Heel claim a big bowl victory but also solidify him as the top QB in the draft.
The Raleigh native spurned UNC for Stanford a couple of years ago, and has been solid for the Cardinal. Love will get a bulk of the carries, now that Christian McCaffrey will sit out the bowl game. McCaffrey’s decision brought much criticism, but in reality, their abilities are fairly similar.
Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Even as a backup, Love showed how good he is all season. On 90 attempts, Love is averaging 7.4 yards per carry, which is better than McCaffrey this season.
While Love is noMcCaffrey, he is still a good running back, and good running backs tend to have great days against UNC.
If Bryce Love has a good day against UNC, it will force the Heels to score a lot of points, and against a great Stanford defense, that could make it hard on the Tar Heels.
If the Cardinal can get ahead early on the Heels, Love will be able to set the tone for the rest of the game.
More from Keeping It Heel