The South’s Oldest Rivalry -- one that has become awfully one-sided recently — returns on Saturday. The last time the Virginia Cavaliers beat North Carolina was in 2009, with Al Groh still as head coach. It was the last of four straight wins over the Tar Heels (seven wins out of the past eight). Since then, seven straight losses. The Tar Heels have been to a bowl game for four straight years, though they only won one of those games. The Heels have actually qualified for a bowl game for 9 straight seasons, but were banned from postseason play in 2012 because of NCAA sanctions.
This year, though, the Heels are just 1-5 with the win coming over ODU. Three of their losses have come at home. With games remaining against VT, Miami and NC State, a bowl game seems unlikely this year. If you read about college football, you probably know that Larry Fedora is on the hot seat, which seems crazy for a guy who’s been to four straight bowl games and won 11 games just two years ago.
The Wahoos, as you probably know, are 4-1 and beginning to get some national publicity. They’re also getting votes in the polls.
Carolina on Offense
Mitch Trubisky is gone. Marquis Williams is gone. LSU transfer Brandon Harris was the named starter this year, but as he struggled, so too did the team. So Coach Fedora went to the QB of the future, redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt, who had originally committed to Duke before flipping to UNC.
Surratt is a left-handed dual-threat guy with power and speed. He’s 6’3” and 215, and although he’s elusive enough, he’s more straight-line fast than quick, and pretty erratic. He makes plays. In these two from the Tar Heels’ loss to Duke, he throws a perfect 46 yard TD pass, and later on he’s off for a 56 yard TD run.
Then, he goes and does this:
Such is life with a freshman QB.
Behind Surratt are two young, talented RBs. Sophomore Jordan Brown is the starter, with freshman Michael Carter behind him. The duo has combined for 528 yards on 113 carries (4.7 ypc) and 8 TDs. They are similar backs, both in size (around 5’10” and somewhat undersized at 195 lbs) and style (more quick than fast). Both are between-the-tackles runners and tough to bring down on the first hit.
Brown also leads the team in receptions, in part due to an injury to top WR Austin Proehl. Even though he’s missed two games, Proehl still leads the team in receiving yards. The top WR duo right now is Jordan Cunningham and Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Ratliff-Williams was a QB in HS, but he was far more developed as a runner than passer, which made the move to WR an easy decision. He’s the big play threat, as shown in that TD catch above. Ratliff-Williams will also return kicks.
Cunningham is a 2016 Vanderbilt transfer, and was one of the top WRs in the nation coming out of high school in 2013. He’s more of a possession guy, but at 6’2” does have the ability to go up for a deep ball. He’s also a strong blocker on the outside.
TE Brandon Fritts, who has 12 catches this season after just 6 last year, has good ball skills and runs well enough. He’s not a deep threat, but he does have enough wheels to be dangerous on a seam route.
Overall, as a unit, the Heels are 89th in total offense. They are 94nd in rushing offense and 60th in passing offense. But they are 99nd in passing efficiency. They were 45th in total offense last year and 13th in passing efficiency with Trubisky at the helm.
Like the Cavs, UNC has two graduate transfers on the OL — Cam Dillard (Florida) and Kahliel Rodgers (USC). The OL also includes two other seniors and sophomore RT Charlie Heck. If that name sounds familiar, he’s the son of former UVA assistant coach Andy Heck (currently with the Chiefs) and his brother, Jon, was a four-year starter for the Heels. This group is pretty good, which makes the team’s struggles all the more surprising.
The offense this year is similar to what they ran with Trubisky. Like so many others in college football these days, is based on the read-option. UNC runs almost every play from shotgun. They line up in single-back with 3 WR on most plays. Most plays, even in obvious passing situations, are going to start with a read-option look. Right now, Surratt is a much better runner than passer. The focus for the Hoos should be on slowing down the read-option. UNC’s WRs aren’t all that scary, so look for a lot of man coverage on the outside. And look for the Hoos to try very hard to get pressure on Surratt and force some mistakes.
UNC needs Surratt to get better. That’ll happen quicker through game action than practice, but it still takes time. No question, Surratt has immense physical talent and could be a very good QB in another year or two. Right now, he’s too inconsistent. And because of that, among other reasons, this offense (and this team) is a year or two away from being good.
Carolina on Defense
Much like UNC’s offense, their defense is very young. Just three seniors and three juniors are in the starting lineup. They lost starting MLB Andre Smith in a week 2 loss to Louisville, and that hurt their playmaking as well as their depth.
The best defender for the Heels is CB M.J. Stewart. Stewart flirted with heading to the NFL last year, but stuck around and is now a possible first round pick. Stewart is a bigger CB (6’0” 205) and he excels in a zone scheme, where he can play downhill. He often moves inside in the nickel, and when he does, watch for him to come on a blitz. Though UNC doesn’t play a lot of man defense, Stewart is likely to be matched up with Levrone a lot this week. The Heels have given up a number of big plays this year, and Stewart is the only guy who can keep Levrone from getting a clean release. Stewart is also the primary PR.
Replacing Andre Smith is Jonathan Smith (no relation), who saw action on special teams last year as a true freshman. He’s athletic and has good instincts, but he really wasn’t ready to be in the position he is. The OLBs are senior Cayson Collins and junior Cole Holcomb. Holcomb is a former walk-on and he leads the team in tackles, with Collins following. Both are best in underneath zone pass coverage, though Collins is a decent pass rusher.
The Heels don’t blitz much right now. Instead, they rely on the DL to generate pressure, and especially on DE Malik Carney. He led the team in sacks a year ago, and he leads the team again this year. Both Carney and his DE counterpart, Tomon Fox, are undersized. But the DTs are both big, strong, and capable. Therefore, the Hoos should have more success running off the edge, off-tackle this week.
The two safeties for the Heels are senior Donnie Miles and sophomore Myles Dorn. They are third and fourth on the team in tackles, though they are a ways behind the OLB duo. Dorn was recruited to play WR, and he still has the instincts of a WR — he’ll go up and get the ball if it’s here. He has 2 INTs on the season, which is 1 more than the entire defense had all of last season.
The Heels are 121st in rushing defense and 73rd in passing defense. That seems bad for a Wahoo team that is much more dangerous passing than running. But some of that is UNC being behind in most of their games. Teams are running to burn clock. And the Hoos have actually been pretty successful running the ball over the past 3 contests, with Jordan Ellis averaging 95 yards.
Ellis has also had 20 carries in four of the five games. Want to guess which game he didn’t hit that mark? If he gets 20 carries again, it likely means the Hoos are ahead and it also likely means they are having success running the ball.
If UNC focuses on slowing down Ellis, that’s fine, because it means Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling will have an easier time on the outside. Look for Benkert to pick on K.J. Sails, the CB opposite Stewart. Again, UNC doesn’t play a lot of man coverage, but the Hoos will use different formations to try to get Sails isolated against one of the Hoos’ bigger WRs. That would be a recipe for a big play.
In a lot of ways, the matchups here favor Virginia. The Wahoo defense is playing outstanding football this year, and the Tar Heels’ offense has struggled. Similarly, though the Cavalier offense is only 67th in the nation, they’ve been successful by hitting some big plays, by avoiding costly mistakes and by converting on 3rd downs (10th in the nation in 3rd down conversions). And UNC’s defense simply isn’t scaring anybody right now.
One place where UNC does have an advantage is special teams. We’ve seen the Hoos allow too many big plays in both kick return and punt return this season, and it probably cost them the Indiana game. On the road, in a hostile environment, a big return can change momentum. It would be nice for Virginia to get a big return of their own, and Joe Reed seems to be oh-so-close to breaking a KR. It may not happen this week, but it’ll happen.
I’m hopeful that the coaching staff can correct the issues with the return game, but I’m also confident that the offensive and defensive advantages that fall Virginia’s way will be the deciding factor in this game. The Hoos are playing better football right now than the Heels are, and that’s why they’ll win.
Prediction: Wahoos 27, Heels 17