This has been a weird season for the Hoos. A 2-0 start, followed by a 6 game losing streak that included home losses to a bad Maryland and a bad Wake Forest team, followed by a 2 game winning streak over pretty good NC State and Miami teams. Now, the Hoos get a nationally televised Thursday night game against the hated Tar Heels.
The Heels are 3-3 in the ACC, and 6-4 overall. That would make them bowl eligible, except they are banned from the postseason this year because they are cheaters. As most Virginia fans will know, the Hoos hadn't lost to the Heels at home since 1981 prior to a loss in 2010. That home winning streak lasted 14 games. The Hoos look to begin another winning streak tomorrow on ESPN.
Virginia on Offense
UNC's defense is pretty good. They are 60th in the country in total defense, but 36th in rushing defense (and that is after giving up 380 yards rushing to Georgia Tech this past weekend). They are 83rd in pass defense, but 44th in pass efficiency defense. They are also 56th in scoring defense. (All ranks are courtesy ncaa.org.)
The Hoos offense is now 48th in the nation, but just 87th in scoring offense. This is largely because of all the turnovers that the Hoos have had. The last two weeks, the Hoos have stopped turning it over, which is a big part of the two wins. The Hoos are now 112th in the country in turnover margin, while the Tar Heels are 29th. The Hoos will have to continue to hang on to the football in order to stay in this game.
UNC's defense is essentially 4-2-5, similar to several we've seen this year. Except this defense is a little bit different, in that it is almost a hybrid 3-3-5 defense. UNC will normally only have 3 down lineman. The 4th lineman is called the "Bandit" and plays more like a 3-4 OLB. The 5th DB is called the "Ram" and is essentially an extra safety. In certain situations, this defense can act like a 4-3, and in certain situations, it can act like a 3-4, and in others, it can act like a basic nickel defense.
Defenses like this are so prevalent in college football because of the rise of the spread offense. It gets more speed on the field, to help combat the multiple personnel packages that spread offenses use. The Hoos, of course, are not a spread offense, so the UNC defense isn't ideally suited to stop them.
The Bandit position is manned by senior Dion Guy, who played DE last year at 6'4" 245 lbs. That makes him a small DE, but a big LB. Guy leads the DL in tackles, and is 5th on the team. Considering his role is often as a pass-rushing LB, his 1 sack seems low. He also has an interception. The one "true" DE in the lineup is junior Kareem Martin. Martin was largely a backup last year, but still finished with 4 sacks and 7 TFLs. This year, he is tied for the team lead with 14 TFLs and has 3 sacks.
The middle of the UNC DL is two traditional DTs, senior Sylvester Williams and sophomore Shawn Underwood. Williams is the real playmaker here, with 10.5 TFLs and 5 sacks. He'll be the focus of the interior linemen for the Hoos. Underwood has had his moments, with 2.5 TFLs and 18 tackles, but he's still developing.
The two starting LBs for the Heels are senior MLB Kevin Reddick and junior WLB Tommy Heffernan. Reddick is the best player on this defense, and leads the team in tackles, sacks and is tied for the lead in TFLs. He also has 5 passes defended. Reddick will rush the passer, he'll fill holes against the run and he'll drop back in coverage. He is big enough to take on an OL and he's quick enough to cover a RB. He'll be the focus of the UVA offense on most plays. Heffernan is a former walk-on but has played well. He's 3rd on the team in tackles, 4th in TFLs and T-3 in sacks. At just 215 pounds, Heffernan can be overpowered. (Reddick is 240 pounds). We will likely see Travis Hughes play some WLB in relief of Heffernan. Reddick rarely comes off the field.
The starter at the Ram position is senior Gene Robinson. Last year, Robinson started 6 games at safety and also saw some time at nickel back. This year, in the hybrid role, he's 6th on the team in tackles but has struggled at times in pass coverage. Senior Pete Mangum, another former walk-on may also see some action at Ram. The Tar Heels like to move the Ram around, often matching up against the offensive alignment. He will line up across from a slot receiver on some plays, especially 3rd downs. He will sometimes line up in the middle of the field on running downs and sometimes he'll line up in the deep secondary in a cover-3 look.
The rest of the secondary is a solid group, with a mixture of veterans and underclassmen. The leader of the group is junior FS Tre Boston, who is 4th on the team in tackles as well as2nd in INTs and passes defended. Boston has played both safety and corner in his career, giving him the versatility necessary to cover TEs or slot receivers and also come up to play the run. At the other safety position, redshirt freshmen Darien Rankin and Sam Smiley had been splitting time. Smiley is out for the year, so now Rankin will get the bulk of the playing time. Rankin has been solid, racking up 40 tackles and 2 interceptions. Kameron Jackson may see some time behind Rankin.
The two CBs are sophomore Tim Scott and junior Jabari Price. Both are very good. Scott played very well as a true freshman last year and leads the team this year with 4 INTs and 11 passes defended. Price is 2nd on the team in tackles and has 9 passes defended to go along with 1 INT. Price is more of a do-everything CB, who excels at coming up against the run and will also come on blitzes from time to time. Scott is a great cover guy.
As I mentioned, Reddick is the key to this defense. The Hoos will want to get a body on him on most plays, trying to keep him away from the action. Look for the Hoos to run the ball away from Price, trying to force Scott to make open field tackles, something he struggles with. If the Hoos can get Dominique Terrell in single coverage against the Ram (whether its Robinson or Mangum), they'll look to exploit that matchup.
The UNC defense likes to attack, often bringing extra pass rushers and using run blitzes extensively. This is why they are 4th in the nation in TFLs and 35th in sacks. Delayed runs, such as draws and traps could work if we can contain the interior of the UNC DL. This also allows a guard or a TE to go get a block on Reddick, hopefully slowing him down.
Because UNC plays with 5 DBs as a base defense, it is difficult to beat them deep. Even if they bring extra pass rushers, they often have 2 deep safeties. The Hoos would also like to get Jake McGee and the other TEs into the secondary and make the 5'11" 190 pound freshman Rankin cover those big guys.
Virginia on Defense
While UNCs defense is pretty good, the strength of this team is their balanced offense. They rank 29th in both rushing and passing, and 15th in total offense. They are also 10th in scoring offense, generating over 40 points per game.
Junior QB Bryn Renner is quickly climbing the record books for the Tar Heels. He has over 2700 yards and 20 TDs already this year and is nearing 6000 yards and 50 TDs for his career. He ranks 3rd in UNC history for both categories. He's completing 63% of his passes this year, after completing 68% last year. While Brenner is a pure drop-back passer, he does have good mobility. UNC ranks 14th in the nation in fewest sacks allowed, and Renner's ability to avoid pass rushers is a big part of that. Renner's backup is redshirt freshman Marquise Williams, who is a dual-threat QB, and will come in for some short yardage and goalline plays. Williams has run the ball more than he has thrown it, so if he comes in the Hoos should expect him to take off.
Sophomore RB Giovani Bernard (5'10" 205) is 8th in the nation in rushing, averaging 126 yards per game. He has 11 rushing TDs already, to go along with another 4 TDs receiving and 2 punt return TDs. Bernard is as dangerous a player as there is in college football and the Hoos defense will need to pay attention to him on every single snap. Sophomores A.J. Blue (6'2" 225) and Romar Morris (5'10" 180) are the other two backs, with Blue being a short yardage/goalline specialist and Morris being similar to Bernard. Blue has 8 rushing TDs on the season, but much of that came with Bernard out with a knee injury.
UNC runs 3 WRs in their base offensive set. Their biggest receiving threat is 6'3" 190 lb senior Erik Highsmith. It seems like Highsmith has been around forever, and he is approaching the Heels team record for receptions. Highsmith has 46 catches this year for over 500 yards and 2 TDs. For his career, he has 158 receptions, putting him just 23 catches away from 1st place. The other two starting WRs are true freshman Quinshad Davis (6'4" 185) and sophomore Sean Tapley (6'1" 185). Tapley has outstanding speed for a guy his size and is the main big play guy in the WR corps. He leads the team with 5 receiving TDs. Highsmight and Davis, being bigger guys, are more possession receivers. There isn't a ton of depth behind the starters, but we will see senior Jheranie Boyd and possibly sophomore Mark McNeill. Those big, tall WRs pose a problem for the Hoos secondary, which is rather small. Maurice Canady and Demetrious Nicholson have been playing well of late, and that strong play will need to continue. Having a solid cover guy like Brandon Phelps at safety may help against the 3 WR set, but I suspect we will see a lot of nickel defense out of the Hoos. That will put even more pressure on the DL and LB to shut down Bernard and the running game.
The Heels will also use Eric Ebron, who has 37 catches for 568 yards and has big play ability. Ebron's backup is Jack Tabb, who is a better in-line blocker than Ebron, but doesn't pose the deep threat that Ebron does.in the slot from time to ime, as both are very good receivers. Morris averages 17 yards per reception. The team's leader in receiving yards, however, is TE
Despite all of the playmakers I've already mentioned, the real strength of the UNC offense is the big boys up front. They returned 4 starters from last year's OL and all 5 started at least one game a year ago. The best of the bunch is senior LG Jonathan Cooper (6'3" 295), a preseason All-American and has started for 4 years. His linemate on the left side is junior James Hurst (6'7" 320), who has a second team All-ACC last year. Both Cooper and Hurst are expected to be high NFL draft picks. On the right side the Heels have 2 seniors, OT Brennan Williams (6'7" 315) and OG Travis Bond (6'7" 340). Those two are both huge guys, and excel at run blocking, but can struggle against quicker DLs. I would hope that Eli Harold and Chris Brathwaite get some time on that side, because their speed could cause some problems. The right side of the UNC line is also susceptible to the blitz.
The only newcomer on the line is sophomore C Russell Bodine (6'4" 305), who actually started two games last year because of an injury to then-starter Cam Holland. The quintet of OLs have combined to start 138 games, with Cooper leading the way with 45 career starts. This group is very big and very good and can really wear down a defense. The Hoos will need to rotate their DLs in order to keep guys fresh for the fourth quarter.
The UNC offense is one of the top units in the nation, and they are firing on all cylinders right now. Against Georgia Tech on Saturday, they piled up almost 500 yards and 50 points in a losing effort. A month ago, against Miami, they were held to just 14 points, but still had over 480 total yards. Keeping them out of the endzone will be important, especially with the season ending injury to PK Casey Barth.
The Hoos will likely try to play a bend-but-don't-break defense, forcing UNC to dink and dunk their way down the field. Missed tackles will kill us, because this offense thrives on big plays. For whatever reason, they aren't great on third downs (40%, about the same as the Hoos), while the Hoos defense has been good on 3rd down (30%). UNC doesn't turn it over much, and while turnovers would obviously be nice, gambling for turnovers isn't likely to be a winning strategy against such an explosive offense. We need force UNC to drive the ball methodically down the field and get stops on third downs when we can.
I haven't mentioned special teams, and I rarely do in these pieces. As we all know, the Hoos special teams this year have been a disaster. Well, UNC is among the best in the nation at returning kicks. Bernard is 4th in the nation as a PR and has 2 TD returns this year. Tapley and Morris, the two main KR, are both in the top 50 in the nation and Tapley has a TD return. UNC will try to get Tapley the ball, which means putting him on the return team's right side, because that is where, annoyingly, Ian Frye kicks it every single time.
If the Hoos are going to win this game, it is going to be on the offense. That means not turning the ball over, and it means turning drives into TDs. The best thing the offense can do is stay on the field, keeping UNC's potent offense on the sidelines. If the Hoos struggle to move the ball, or turn it over, the game could get ugly.
The combination of UNC's offense, our special teams and the quick turnaround terrifies me. I have a bad feeling about this game. I hope I'm wrong.
Prediction: Tar Heels 42, Hoos 20