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Virginia vs. North Carolina Football: The Big Preview

Can Virginia break a six-game losing streak to rival North Carolina?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The South’s oldest rivalry returns this weekend as the Hoos face the Tar heels for the 121st time. Virginia trails the series 54-62-4, which includes six straight losses. Yes, Mike London never beat UNC. As you probably know, he never beat Virginia Tech either. Going 0-6 against your 2 biggest rivals is a good way to get fired. Al Groh, it should be noted, went 7-2 against the Tar Heels.

The Heels are 5-2 and coming off a big win on the road against the ranked Miami Hurricanes. They lead the Coastal division with a 3-1 conference record. The Hoos are coming off a home loss to Pitt and are 2-4 (1-1 ACC).

Last week’s loss was disappointing as the Hoos were building momentum, especially offensively, in the first half. Giving up two non-offensive TDs makes for a tough recipe for a win, especially when struggling to get anything going offensively in the second half. The lack of consistency in all phases is catching up on Virginia’s season. If the Hoos could put together a solid performance in all 3 phases for 60 minutes, they could do some damage.

Here is the game information:

Who: UNC Tar Heels
Where: Scott Stadium
When: 3:00 PM
TV: RSN (Comcast SportsNet in the DC area)

So, how do the teams match up?

UNC on Offense

QB: #10 Mitch Trubisky
RB: #34 Elijah Hood, #8 T.J. Logan
WR: #3 Ryan Switzer, #84 Bug Howard, #7 Austin Proehl

The Tar Heels are the polar opposite of the Hoos’ previous opponent, Pitt. UNC is ranked 51st in the nation in total offense. That breaks down to the #24 passing offense and the #111 rushing offense. UNC is #15 in passing efficiency. What does that mean? It means they are very very good at throwing the ball.

Trubisky is 9th in the nation (and 2nd in the ACC) in pass yards. For comparison Benkert is 26th in the nation and 6th in the ACC. Trubisky is also 9th in the nation in passes attempted, but is just 83rd in yards per completion. Where Trubisky really separates himself is in his efficiency. He has thrown 175 passes this year, completing 76% of them. And he has thrown just 2 INTs this year, both of which came in the Heels’ 34-3 loss to VT. That game, as you may have heard, was played in a hurricane.

Mitch is also capable of making plays with his feet, though not to the extent that his predecessor Marquis Williams was. Trubisky has been sacked 13 times this year, but has 52 total rushes for 101 yards. Those sacks accounted for 80 lost yards, meaning that his other 39 rushes went for roughly 181 yards or nearly 5 yards per carry. He also has 4 TDs. Trubisky still has another year of eligibility remaining, but if he continues to play like this, he could be a first round draft pick in 2018.

Though Hood is the Tar Heel’s starting tailback, Logan actually has more rushing yards. Some of that is due to Hood missing a game, but Logan has also been the more effective back this year. Logan has 65 rushes for 409 yards (6.3 ypc), while Hood has 80 rushes for 369 yards (4.6 ypc) At 6’2” 220, Hood is a north-south runner, in a similar mold to James Conner last week. He’s not nearly as powerful as Conner, though he may actually be faster. Last year, Hoos rushed for almost 1500 yards. Logan, at 5’10” 190, is a quicker, shiftier back who excels in open space. Logan is the Heels’ primary KR.

Switzer leads the team with 58 receptions, twice as many as Bug Howard in 2nd. Switzer, though, averages just 10.4 yards per catch (thought he does have a long of 75 yards). He’s a possession guy who often lines up in the slot and catches underneath passes. He is shifty and dangerous in the open field. Getting him to ground quickly after the catch is imperative. Switzer is also the Tar Heel’s primary punt returner and with 7 career PR TDs, he’s one of the best ever.

At 6’5” 210, Howard is much bigger than Switzer. He may also be faster, at least in a straight line. Howard was one of the top WRs in the nation coming out of HS in 2013, though he’s largely been overshadowed at UNC by other WRs. The Heels’ #3 WR is Austin Proehl. If that is familiar to you, it is because Proehl’s dad, Ricky, played 17 years in the NFL and won two Super Bowl rings.

The Heels will miss Mack Hollins, who is out for the season after suffering a broken collarbone last week. Hollins was a former walk-on who has become one of the top big play guys in the ACC. For his career, he’s averaged over 20 yards per catch. In 2014, he caught 2 long TDs against the Hoos, helping the Heels pull out a 28-27 win in a game that the Hoos led 14-0. Listed as the starter in Hollins’ place is freshman Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Ratliff was recruited initially as a QB, but has moved to WR. He has just one catch (6 yards) on the year, but he’s dangerous with the ball in his hands. He has returned some kicks.

Though the Heels do not run the ball very much, they aren’t bad at it. They average almost 5 yards per carry (when removing sacks) and have a big, veteran OL. That OL is led by senior RT Jon Heck. Heck’s dad was an assistant coach with the Hoos under Al Groh and is now the OL coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. Along with line-mates OC Lucas Crowley and RG Caleb Peterson, the Heels will likely have 3 OLs drafted this year.

The Hoos struggled last week to contain Conner, so that doesn’t bode well for stopping Elijah Hood. A year ago, Hood rushed for over 100 yards and 2 TDs in the Heels’ 26-13 win. He hasn’t had the same success this year, though he hasn’t been fully healthy. The saving grace for the Hoos is that UNC doesn’t seem too interested in running the ball. After some early struggles, the Hoos pass defense has been better than the rush defense over the past few weeks. The Heels don’t turn the ball over much, just 8 times all season (and 4 of those were in the VT game). But in order for the Hoos to win this game, they’ll need to force a couple of turnovers.

The primary key for the Hoos defense is to slow down the Heels WRs. Expect to see a an extra DB on the field at times for the Hoos. Getting a pass rush will be key, because if Trubisky has time to throw, he'll pick apart the Hoos. Of course, bringing extra pass rushers opens then Hoos up to big plays, something that has hurt them this year. Simply put, the DBs are going to have to play well. If the Hoos are bringing extra pass rushers and focusing on the WRs, that means the DL will largely be tasked with stopping Hood and Logan (and Trubisky) and the ground game.

UNC on Defense

DL: #90 DT Nazair Jones,
LB: #10 MLB Andre Smith, #36 WLB Cole Holcomb
DB: #15 SS Donnie Miles, #6 CB M.J. Stewart

Much like their offense, UNC’s defense is the polar opposite of Pitt’s. While the Panthers boast one of the nation’s top rush defenses and a poor pass defense, the Heels have the converse of that. UNC’s rush defense ranks 106th in the nation. Their pass defense, though, ranks 31st. However, they rank just 65th in pass efficiency defense, and 69th in sacks.

This defense had given up at least 23 points to every team this year before last week. Then they went on the road and held a very good Miami offense to just 13 points (and the Canes didn’t score until just a few minutes remained in the 3rd quarter). They shut down the Canes by limiting them on 3rd down. The Canes were just 4 of 15 on 3rd downs. That will kill and offense very quickly. The Canes ran the ball on 12 of their first 14 plays. Also, their first 3 passes all went to the RBs. That shows you what their game plan was, and also what UNC’s defense will give. They fell behind late and went away from the running game. Part of UNC's defensive struggled have been related to injuries up front. The Heels have used 8 different starters on the DL this year.

The first thing you’ll notice about UNC’s defense is their size up front. They run a 4-3 defense with 4 DLs over 270 pounds, including a pair of 310 pound DTs. (Although we will see a lot of 230 pound DE Malik Carney, especially in passing situations.) You would think that unit would be tough to run against, but that simply hasn’t been the case. A problem with having such big DLs is they take up a lot of space. That can make it more difficult for the LBs to get into the rush lanes to make stops. When removing sacks, the Heels have given up nearly 5 yards per rush. Though that isn’t terrible, they’ve struggled with the big play. Even JMU was able to pick up big chunks of yards at times. Their other weakness seems to be tackling. There are a lot of missed tackles, especially at the line of scrimmage. A guy like Smoke Mizzell may have some success with trap and off-tackle runs with his ability to make defenders miss in space.

UNC also has trouble with QBs who can move. Though we haven’t seen much of that from Kurt Benkert, we have been told that he’s capable of it. We have seen him get out of the pocket and make plays with his arm, and that may be what he has to do against UNC’s pass defense.

Against the Hoos’ multiple WR sets, UNC will likely run a lot of nickel defense. Their secondary is a veteran unit led by ,Miles who is their leading tackler. Miles also led the team in tackles a year ago as a sophomore. The two CBs, Stewart and Des Lawrence are both good cover guys. Stewart had 4 picks a year ago to go along with 18 passes defended. Lawrence had 2 picks and 16 passes defended. This year, though, neither of them has come away with a pick yet. In fact, nobody on UNC has an interception. This is a big part of why their pass efficiency defense is so low despite the high ranking in total pass defense. They’re 56th in yards per attempt defensively and they’ve given up just 6 passing TDs all year, tied for 21st in the nation.

When the Heels go nickel, Stewart will move inside to the slot and Corey Bell Jr will come in to play outside. Bell is a sophomore who checks in at just 5’9” 175. So if the Hoos can get him lined up against a big WR such as Keeon Johnson, that is a big advantage. Of course, the downside to that exchange is Stewart matching up with Olamide Zaccheaus, the Hoos top WR. Stewart is absolutely capable of shutting down OZ. Look for Robert Anae to move Zaccheaus around to find better matchups for him.

Next to Miles is Dominique Green, a senior who is starting regularly for the first time in his career. He started 3 times last year and had 41 tackles and 2 INTs. This year, he’s already surpassed that with 45 tackles (4th on the team) and has 2 passes defended.

Smith, the MLB, is just a sophomore but had a very productive season as a true freshman last year. He was one of the top MLB prospects in the nation, coming out of Jacksonville and is proving that ranking true. He’s a bit on the small side, and that leads to missed tackles. But he runs well, he plays smart and he can hit. He is also solid in pass coverage and will come on a blitz from time to time. He is a close 2nd on the team in tackles. Holcomb is former walk-on who is 3rd in tackles from the Will spot. He is also best in pass coverage, but can be muscled around by bigger players. If the Hoos can get Evan Butts matchup with him on a pass route, that would be a win. Holcomb may come off the field in nickel situations.

The Heels do not have any single dominant pass rusher. A pair of DEs, Malik Carney and Mikey Bart lead the team with 3.5 and 3 sacks, respectively. Seven other guys have at least one sack. Jones and Carney lead the team with 4.5 TFLs each. Though they will blitz, they aren't really a heavy blitzing team. Don't expect to see DB blitzes like we did last week. The LBs will come, but rarely with UNC bring more than 5 pass rushers. They rely on their great secondary to cover without a huge need for a pass rush.

The Hoos are a passing team. We know this. UNC knows this. The Hoos aren’t likely to change very much, even though it isn’t a great matchup for the Heels. However, the Hoos should be able to get some good matchups. The TEs could be a big weapon this week, especially as UNC will spend a lot of time in a nickel package. And though the Hoos haven’t run the ball very well this year, they do have a good stable of RBs, so they may be able to use the ground game in order to help open up the pass game. I wouldn’t expect the same kind of game plan that the Canes used last week. They were able to pound the ball early in the game against the Heels. They just kept shooting themselves in the foot, so they couldn’t put any points on the board.

As we saw last week (and in previous weeks) the Hoos are very capable of shooting themselves in the foot. But as we also saw last week, they are also capable of putting up some big numbers offensively. If the Hoos manage to keep the mistakes to a minimum, they may have some success against UNC’s defense.

Conclusion

It must be noted that Miami had several special teams miscues, including a blocked FG and a converted UNC onsides kick. The Hoos gave up a big KR TD last week to Pitt and have a very poor kicking situation. The Heels, on the other hand, are very good at special teams. That could be a big difference in this game.

It remains to be seen how the allegations against the Virginia Football team will affect the players. It could be difficult for such a young team to focus on the game with something like this hanging over their heads.

The Hoos would basically need to play a perfect game in order to beat this Tar Heel team. Since we haven’t seen anything close to a perfect game from the Hoos, that seems unlikely.

Prediction: Tar Heels 38, Hoos 28