Having lost their last seven games against North Carolina and 20 of the last 22 overall away from Charlottesville, it’s surprising to see the Virginia Cavaliers as a 3.5-4 point favorite in Saturday’s tilt with the Tar Heels. But that sort of optimism is well earned with Virginia playing some of the best football Wahoo fans have seen in years and UNC being a far cry from the team that has been in the upper echelon of ACC teams in recent years. At 4-1, not only does Virginia have a legitimate shot at bowl eligibility, they could make some noise in the ACC Coastal Division. It starts Saturday against North Carolina. Here’s what to watch.
- Hang on to the Football - If you listened to the Streaking the Lawn Podcast this week, then you already know that Virginia is playing with fire when it comes to holding onto the football. On the season they’ve fumbled the football ten times. Luckily however, they haven’t lost a single one. Nationally, Virginia ranks 13th in totals fumbles per game, having dropped the ball an average of two times per game. But they rank first in fumbles “not lost” per game. Given that teams last season recovered an average of eight of their own fumbles over the course of a year, and the best teams in country at “not surrendering” fumbles recovered 16, the fact that Virginia already has 10 is somewhat alarming. Footballs take funny bounces, and some regression to the mean is to be expected. One of Bronco Mendenhall’s key indicators for success is a +1 turnover margin each game. So far on the season Virginia has achieved that in 4 of 5 games so it’s no coincidence that they have four wins on the season. However, if two of those fumbles go the other way, there’s no telling what the outcome of some of those games might have been.
- Start Strong - I think we can all agree this Virginia football season has been a pleasant surprise. However, as any good Virginia sports fan knows, it’s dangerous to get too excited about sports (especially football). Whether you believe that Cavaliers “can’t have nice things” or that Lucy will always swipe the football, watching the first half against Duke last Saturday surely made you think “here we go again.” UVA mustered only 41 yards in the first half against Duke until their 69 yard scoring drive to end the period. Against UNC’s defense, rated in the bottom third of the ACC in most defensive categories, Virginia should be able to move the ball effectively and score. But if they start slow again, coupled with a bad break or two, UNC may be too much to overcome.
- Contain Surratt - North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt isn’t afraid to run the football. But he’s not going remind anyone of Michael Vick either. Until he plays Virginia that is. As strong as the UVA defense has been this season, quarterbacks have still had a field day running the ball on the Hoos, running for 336 yards on 55 carries against Virginia this season for an average of 6.1 ypc. While it appears that may be part of the game plan, at some point that strategy could come back to bite Virginia. Against Duke, the threat of Daniel Jones running the ball softened the defense enough that it opened up plays downfield. Jones and his receivers just couldn’t connect. In Virginia’s only loss against Indiana, the momentum shifted when Peyton Ramsey entered the game. And not only did he score a rushing touchdown of his own, he was able to connect with Simmie Cobbs and his other receivers downfield. The margin for error is thin when you allow a quarterback to make plays with his legs. If it’s a concession in order to squash all other offensive production, then it’s a fine strategy. However if UNC can ride Surratt to a couple plays with his legs here and there, open up the offense just a little bit, they can exploit a weakness in the stingy Virginia defense.
Virginia and North Carolina collide at 3:30 P.M. Saturday. The game will be televised by the Regional Sports Network and ACC Network. Stay with Streaking the Lawn for all of your in-game and postgame coverage. And as always, Go Hoos!