Virginia Football Week 3: Carolina Preview

Well, the Hoos are 2-0 and now enter the ACC portion of the schedule. Yes, folks, it's going to get more difficult from here on out. This week, the Hoos travel to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels. We've actually won two in a row down there (the last time we lost in Chapel Hill was the awful 7-5 game), but were beaten at home last year for the first time in nearly 30 years. The Tar Heels are also 2-0, but the program is in disarray with the firing of head coach Butch Davis just weeks before the season starts.

Will the Hoos get redemption for last year's loss? Will the Tar Heels talent be too much for the Hoos to overcome? Let's find out.

Virginia on Offense

The Hoos have put 74 points on the board in just 2 games, a remarkable total considering the offensive struggles of the past few seasons. Last year, the team averaged 25 points per game, and that was the most since 2005. However, the defenses we have faced so far are not like in the same class as the Tar Heels, at least on paper.

The Tar Heels defense had a lot of talent taken in the 2011 NFL draft, but a lot of it didn't play at all last year. That forced some younger players to get more playing time than had been expected, which is paying off this year. Senior DE Quinton Coples is one of those guys, a guy who was seen as a contributor at both DE and DT but became a starting DE and ended up with 10 sacks and 15.5 TFLs. OTs Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi will both have their hands full with Coples, as I expect him to move from side to side depending on situations. Coples leads the DL this year, but all 4 starters from a year ago return.

That said, all 4 are not necessarily starting. Opposite Coples was projected to be junior Donte Paige-Moss, but sophomore Kareem Martin has gotten the nod in this season's two contests and has played well so far. Paige-Moss is still getting playing time, on both sides of the DL. In the middle, senior Jordan Nix was expected to start, but he has also been usurped, by junior Sylvester Williams. Alongside Williams is senior Tydreke Powell. Nix, like Paige-Moss is still contributing. The Tar Heels DL is very good and has compiled 6 sacks already in 2 games.

All 3 DTs are 300 pounds or more, and all 3 DEs are in the 270-280 range. In others, it is a big defensive line, and they are very talented. We've seen two solid performances from our OL so far, but they are going to have to step up their game. Our ground game has averaged over 200 yards and over 4.5 yards per carry. The Heels will be geared up to stop that ground game.

That Heels run defense is helped by a very good set of LBs. The Heels lost 2 very good LBs from last year to the NFL, but still return 3 guys who received a lot of playing time last year. (This is largely due to Quan Sturdivant missing almost half of the season with an injury.) Last year's 2 leading tacklers were Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown, and they both return. They have both started off strong this season, and are currently 1 and 3 in tackles. They are joined by senior Ebele Okakpu (I don't even want to know how to pronounce that), who has mostly seen action on special teams prior to this year. Okakpu is smallish but he's fast. He has been splitting time with redshirt freshman Tommy Heffernan. Heffernan has a lot of potential but he is raw. One of the advantages of having two veteran LBs is they can help bring along the younger guys.

The Hoos OL is going to have to work very hard to open up holes for the RBs because this UNC front 7 is very good. They are big, fast and talented. They have given up just 64 rushing yards. Yes, 64. In 2 games.

Like the DL, UNC was forced to play some younger guys in the secondary due to the suspensions. Some of those young guys are now a big part of the secondary. Also, returning senior safety Jonathan Smith and senior corner Charles Brown return after missing all of last season. Smith joins fellow senior Matt Merletti to form a good, veteran tandem. Tre Boston played both CB and S last year as a true freshman, and he took some lumps. He is currently listed as a S, but has started both games at CB. He is really more of a safety than a CB, so look for the Hoos to attack him if he's in single coverage. Brown starts opposite him after missing the first game of the season. Behind them is true freshman Tim Scott, who will see time as a nickel back. Scott will also be the first DB off the bench if anybody gets hurt, with Boston moving back to S if needed. If Scott is on the field, look for us to target him, as he is small and inexperienced. A guy like Matt Snyder should do well against him. Also, if he is covering Darius Jennings or Dominique Terrell, that matchup would be worth watching just to see two very similar, supremely athletic guys going against each other.

We are really going see what Michael Rocco has to offer, because UNC is going to throw a lot of zones at us, meaning the short underneath passes might not be as successful. Rutgers was able to move the ball well against the Tar Heels with a veteran QB throwing to one very good WR. We don't really have either of those things, which means offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will have to get creative. We still have some mismatches with TEs and RBs, so look for us to keep looking there. It would be nice to have TE Colter Phillips back for this game, but that is uncertain. RB Perry Jones' receiving skills will be useful in this game. I wouldn't be surprised if Jones had 8 or 10 catches.

Let's not kid ourselves; the UNC defense is very good. We are probably not going to score 30+ points again. The important things are going to be not turning the ball over, and not getting stuck in long yardage situations. Hopefully, we can generate a couple of big plays and put points on the board that way. It is going to be very difficult to sustain long drives against this team.

The UNC run defense is too good for us to just pound the ball up the middle like we have the past two weeks. Rocco is going to have to make plays, so let's hope he is capable. I imagime we'll also see some of David Watford running the read option. That could turn into a big play if UNC over commits. Let's hope it turns out better than it did last week.

Virginia on Defense

So, that was kind of depressing. Maybe we'll get some good news on this side of the ball. Certainly, UNC's offense can't be as good as their defense. No, and it's not even close.

Last year, senior QB T.J. Yates threw for nearly 3500 yards and set numerous team record. This year, sophomore Bryn Renner takes the helm. Renner has taken every snap thus far for the Tar Heels. Renner is pretty mobile, but not enough to be a real threat on the ground. Granted the competition hasn't been great, but Renner has completed over 85% of his passes. Frankly, that would be pretty good if there was no defense at all. Of course, of his 7 incompletions, 4 were intercepted. That wouldn't happen with no defense.

At RB, the Tar Heels get Ryan Houston back after his missed all of last year. He was only suspended for 5 games, but he decided it would be better to redshirt and play an entire season. Houston was UNC's leading rusher in 2009, and he has slimmed down some to make himself faster. The thing is, Houston hasn't played in a live game in a long time. Well, prior to the opener this season, I mean. Despite his slimmed down body, he is still more of a bruiser back than a speed back. Houston has been splitting carries with Giovani Bernard, a redshirt freshman who was one of the top RBs in the nation in 2010. Bernard is very, very good and reminds me a bit of our Clifton Richardson. Bernard missed all of last year because of a torn ACL.

Both of these RBs will be running behind a very big OL. All 5 starters are over 300 pounds and at least 6'2". There is one senior, C Cam Holland plus 3 juniors and sophomore LT James Hurst. The left side of the line is a little bit weaker than the right side, which plays into the strength of our DL (read: Cam Johnson). As is usually the case with bigger lines, they are better at run blocking than pass blocking, at least on paper. They have been pretty solid in both phases so far this year. Brenner has not been sacked yet this season.

Brenner has two very good WRs to throw to, but not much behind them. Senior Dwight Jones is the star, and he has over 250 receiving yards already this season (15th in the country, after finishing 42nd last year). Jones torched us for 198 yards and 2 TDs last year. Obviously, that can't happen again.

Junior Erik Highsmith is also talented and will take advantage of the attention we show Jones. The only other WR to catch a pass is junior Jheranie Boyd and he has just 1 reception. There are a couple of TEs, senior Christian Wilson and junior Nelson Hurst (James' brother), but neither of them are big threats.

Both Jones and Highsmith are big, strong WRs. This does not bode well for a team that was beaten by Indiana's bigger receivers. We are probably going to have to focus on the ground game, keeping a safety near the line, which will mean that Chase will be alone more often than not.

The main key to stopping UNC's offense is stopping the run. Renner is good, but he is young and will make mistakes. Getting some pressure on him early could also help in this regard. If Houston and Bernard are able to consistently run the ball, we aren't going to have a shot. If we shut them down, and force Renner to beat us, we can capitalize on his mistakes.

I imagine we will see a lot of deep zones with underneath coverage. This way, the LBs can key on the RBs without worrying about underneath zones, while there will still be help against deep passes, especially on whichever side of the field Tra Nicholson is.

Corey Mosley is going to have to step up his game, and can't miss tackles like he did a week ago. If we have a shot to bring down the RBs, we need to take it. UNC's offense is pretty solid, but they only scored 24 points against Rutgers, despite 405 yards. This was largely because of 4 turnovers. If UNC turns it over 4 times again, we should come out on top.

Conclusion

The Tar Heels present a much greater challenge to the Hoos than what we've faced so far. They boast one of the best defenses in the nation, and an offense that is good enough to put points on the board. The matchups aren't great either. Offensively, we want to run the ball, and UNC excels at stopping the run. On defense, UNC has a huge OL and a couple of very big WRs.

If our defense steps up and stops the UNC ground game, we've got a shot. Forcing a few turnovers, and protecting the ball ourselves, will go a long way as well. Like I said, we aren't going to score 30 points, so it is going to come down to how well our defense can stop them.

UNC did not play well last week, and were somewhat lucky to pull out a win at home against Rutgers. For a team that fired the head coach just a month ago, sloppy play isn't surprising. If UNC cleans it up, we're likely going to get beat. If not, it'll be a game. I simply can't see us scoring enough to win.

Prediction: UNC 30, Hoos 13

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