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Independence Bowl preview: UNC-Missouri

The Tar Heels and the Tigers battle in Shreveport. Dave Miller

Print This December 26, 2011, 10:15 AM EST

The 2011-12 bowl season continues Monday with the Independence Bowl between North Carolina and Missouri.

The Tar Heels and Tigers will meet in the nation’s 11th-oldest bowl game, with the teams meeting for the third time in history but the first time since 1976. The Tigers lead the all-time series 2-0.

Let’s take a look at this contest a little more closely…

Independence Bowl preview: North Carolina (7-5) vs. Missouri (7-5) at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2

The Tar Heels made it to Shreveport despite finishing 3-5 in ACC play and stumbling through the second half after opening the season with five wins in their first six games under interim head coach Everett Withers, who took over the program after Butch Davis was dismissed shortly after ACC Media Days. Larry Fedora will take over the program after this contest while Withers joins Urban Meyer's staff at Ohio State.

Dwight JonesICONDwight Jones has been cleared to play in UNC's bowl game, which is a big boost to its passing attack.

UNC received some good news when it found out that senior receiver Dwight Jones was reinstated by the NCAA after being declared ineligible after his name and picture were used on a flier promoting a party. Jones caught 79 passes for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, and he's quarterback Bryn Renner's top target. Also keep an eye on true freshman T.J. Thorpe, a dynamic kick returner who may have more of an impact at receiver because of increased reps during the team's extra bowl practices.

But the one player that Mizzou must be able to stop is running back Giovani Bernard, who is a powerful runner with enough shake to give defenders problems. The redshirt freshman finished the season with 1,222 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, and he had more rushing yards than any other freshman in the country.

Defensively, the Tar Heels fielded future NFL talent such as end Quinton Coples and outside linebacker Zach Brown, who recorded a team-best 91 tackles, had 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. But the defense wasn't quite as stout as the inconsistent offense needed it to be, including the loss to Miami where the Hurricanes jumped out to a 24-point lead. The bad loss to Clemson the following week and a shutout loss to NC State -- the fifth straight season UNC had lost to its rival -- didn't help matters.

Missouri, meanwhile, has won five of its last seven games and is on a three-game winning streak. The Tigers have also endured several close losses, including a three-point loss to Baylor and a seven-point defeat to Kansas State. Quarterback James Franklin will give the UNC defense fits, as the dual-threat is one of only three FBS players with 800 or more rushing yards and 2,000 or more passing yards. It is imperative for Franklin to find some room to run because that will open up Gary Pinkel's spread passing game.

However, the Tigers suffered a big blow when running back Henry Josey went down with a serious knee injury. UNC is 16th in the nation against the run, so it will be difficult for Kendial Lawrence to find openings. But if Mizzou can employ any sort of a sound ground game, it will open up passing lanes for Franklin against a UNC defense that was the weakest in the ACC this fall against the pass.

Keep an eye on: E.J. Gaines. Senior defensive lineman Dominique Hamilton gets much of the attention on the Mizzou defense because of his 6-5, 305-pound frame, but cornerback E.J. Gaines is integral to the Tigers' pass defense. He set a new school record with 16 pass break-ups and added 69 tackles, and the first-team all-Big 12 defender will need to be at his best against Dwight Jones and the UNC passing attack.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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