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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs North Carolina

Virginia has bowl eligibility and control of first place in the Coastal on the line as UNC comes to town.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Cavaliers football is starting to get some national attention. They’re also getting votes in both polls. This isn’t a huge surprise to Wahoo fans who have seen Virginia knock off the Hurricanes and Blue Devils in back-to-back weeks. Those games weren’t flukes; Virginia is good.

North Carolina, on the other hand, is having a(nother) down year. Things began poorly with a handful of players suspended for selling their shoes. Things have not improved much, as the Tar Heels are just 1-5 on the season. Their lone win came at home against Pitt. They also got blown out by East Carolina and Miami and had a game against UCF cancelled. Considering UCF holds the nation’s longest winning streak, there’s a pretty good chance they were losing that as well.

The last two weeks have changed their outlook though. In games against Virginia Tech and Syracuse, they held late leads and blew a chance at a big win. The Virginia Tech loss was particularly disheartening, as they were two yards away from a likely game clinching TD and fumbled. They then allowed a 98-yard, game winning drive by the Hokies. Their loss at Syracuse came in overtime.

As you probably know, this game is “The South’s Oldest Rivalry”. This will be the 123rd meeting of these two teams since 1892. Last year, Virginia came out on top for the first time this decade, and the Hoos are favored by 8.5 this year.

The game is at 12:20 EST at Scott Stadium and will air on Raycom Sports Network. Let’s get on to the matchups.

Virginia on Offense

Two weeks ago, against Miami, Virginia had just 231 yards of offense. Last week, against Duke, Virginia upped that to 376 yards. Both of those were solid performances against good defenses. A similar output against UNC would not be a solid performance, as UNC gives up an average of 411 yards per game, ranking 91st in the nation in that category.

The advanced numbers tell a better story, where they rank 65th in defensive S&P. That is still far lower than Virginia’s last three opponents. NC State is 33rd, Duke is 29th and Miami is 12th. The Virginia offense currently ranks 86th in S&P and 82nd in total offense. Virginia’s offense breaks down to the 58th ranked rushing offense and the 95th ranked passing attack.

The bad news is that RB Jordan Ellis’s status is up in the air right now. As you probably know, he missed the second half of last week’s game against Duke. Without Ellis, Virginia’s offense stalled out for much of the second half. In the first half, Virginia averaged almost 4.7 yards per play. In the second half, that number fell to under four yards per play. That is the difference between a good offense and a bad one.

UNC actually plays a 4-3 defense. Strange, right? Prior to this week, every Virginia opponent has run a base nickel package. Generally speaking, a 4-3 defense is tougher to run against, though that isn’t the case for UNC. Still, Virginia’s coaching staff will have to make some changes to the offensive game plan.

The UNC defense is really led by the line, which is an aggressive unit. The starting DEs have combined for 12 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. One starting DT is Jason Stowbridge, who has another four TFLs and 3.5 sacks. The other starting DT is Aaron Crawford, who will be making his first appearance this season after suffering an injury during pre-season camp. He had three sacks and five TFLs last year as a sophomore. At 6’1, 310, he’s very strong in the running game, and will single-handedly improve UNC’s run defense. Sophomore DE Tomon Fox has just one sack on the season so far, but he had two in last year’s contest as a true freshman. Here’s one of them.

He basically just runs right past Brandon Pertile. This really shows his quickness and burst off the snap. Perkins is, of course, much more mobile than Kurt Benkert, but when a DL gets in your face that quickly, it’s usually a sack. Usually, but not always:

Yep, I just wanted another chance to watch that play. OK, so that’s a LB and not a DL. No less amazing on Perkins’ part.

The Tar Heels leader in tackles senior OLB Cole Holcomb, and it’s not close. Holcomb was a walk-on who is now in his third year as a starter. He’s sort of the prototypical high-IQ player. He’s always in the correct spot, and doesn’t miss tackles. He’s going to be a tough player to beat on the read-option and Bryce Perkins will need to know where Holcomb is when he makes his read. Holcomb had 14 tackles in last year’s contest.

The Tar Heels secondary is also a strength, with three upperclassmen. Strong safety J.K. Britt is the heart of the secondary and the second leading tackler on the team. He had nine tackles a year ago. Both CBs are on the small side, with sophomore C.J. Cotman listed at just 5’10, 175. That’s a great matchup on the outside for Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. Cotman has outstanding speed but he was originally recruited as a RB before moving to the secondary. He’s still learning how to play CB. Look for Perkins to look to exploit that matchup with some deep balls to the perimeter. And around the goal line, look for the Hoos to target Cotman with quick passes to the inside. Cotman doesn’t have the strength to get inside position on the Cavaliers big WRs.

Virginia on Defense

This part of these preview is getting to be fun. This Virginia defense is legit. Right now, they rank 24th nationally in total defense. The thing is, they’re getting better and better. Although Chris Peace, Juan Thornhill and some other upperclassmen are the leaders of the unit, there’s a ton of youth throughout the defense.

Last week, the defense got 31 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs from sophomores. In fact, six of eleven starters on the defense were sophomores. That defense held Duke to 320 total yards, 60 below their season average. Nearly 25% of that total came on the final drive, when the game was not in doubt. It was, simply put, a dominating defensive performance. Duke’s offense ranks just 86th in total offense, but 64th in Offensive S&P.

On the other hand, UNC’s offense ranks 52nd in total offense, but 101st in S&P. After beginning the season with some very poor performances, they’ve put up 500 yards in each of the past two games.

Last year’s QB, Chazz Surratt, was one of the players suspended in the shoe-selling scheme, so he missed the first four games. During that time, Nathan Elliott stepped into the starting role. He also finished last year in the starting role, but Surratt was certainly seen as the more talented signal-caller. Elliott wasn’t particularly good early on, but played very well in the win over Pitt. Surratt was eligible for the Miami game, and subbed on for Elliott for the third possession. Neither played well in the blowout loss. Elliott has retained the starting job and Surratt has not seen action since that Miami game.

Elliott is lefty, so that may change the way the Hoos line up defensively. His blind side is different than a righty, and he’s more likely to roll out to his left. He also doesn’t have a particularly strong arm. He’s capable of throwing the deep ball, but he’s not likely to fire a deep out into a tight window. We may see the CBs play a bit tighter coverage at the line because he’s more likely to throw quick passes. He’s averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt, which ranks 104th in the nation. Even the past two games, when he’s played much better, he’s still averaged only 6.9 yards per attempt. That would rank around 85th in the country. But he’s also averaging just 10.3 yards per completion, which is 101st nationally.

Elliott is a dual threat guy, but he’s not the runner that Surratt is. Against Syracuse, he had seven rushes for three yards, which includes 10 yards of sacks. On the season, he has 32 carries for 28 yards (which again includes sacks). In the opener against Cal, he had 58 yards rushing. He hasn’t done much rushing since. It seems like a concerted effort. UNC has a lot of talent at the skill positions, so getting the ball into their hands makes more sense than having Elliott run it.

The skill position players begin at running back, where UNC uses a committee approach. Three RBs have over 40 carries led by Antonio Williams with 65 carries for 424 yards and four TDs. Michael Carter has 41 carries for 292 yards (Carter missed two games because of the suspension) and Jordon Brown has 43 carries for 159 yards. For comparison purposes, the two teams have a comparable number of carries when accounting for UNC’s wiped out game, and the Jordan Ellis/Bryce Perkins duo have well over 80% of Virginia’s carries. The UNC depth chart lists the three RBs as “OR”. Here’s a shot of Carter in last year’s matchup. He has great speed and the effort by Juan Thornhill to chase him down is impressive.

UNC also has a couple of go-to WRs. The first is Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a former QB who was first team All-ACC as a “specialist” last year. He had two kick return TDs. (Joe Reed was better as a kick returner last year, and should’ve been first team. But that’s a different discussion.) He leads the team with 25 receptions for 354 yards. Dazz Newsome also has 25 receptions, but has just 271 yards. Newsome doesn’t even technically start. The three RBs are all a big part of the passing game, with a combined 37 receptions for 234 yards. Newsome is also the punt returner and had a punt return TD last week against Syracuse. Don’t be surprised to see Ratliff-Williams throw a pass, as he’s attempted seven passes in his career. He’s 0-2 this year, though. Newsome has also thrown a pass, completing a 43 yarder against the Hokies.

Against Miami, Virginia faced an OL featured four sure-fire NFL draft picks. Against Duke, it was the other end of the spectrum as their OL is not highly regarded. UNC is a bit of a mixed bag. LT William Sweet is a solid NFL prospect as is LG Nick Paulino. And RT Charlie Heck is the son of an NFL player and brother to a 4-year starter for the Heels.

The key to shutting down the Heels is keeping the RBs from getting going. Either one of the three guys could break out in any game, and Carter had 157 yards rushing in last year’s game. The Hoos were able to overcome that once, but don’t want to tempt fate again.

Conclusion

These certainly seem like two teams going in opposite directions. At 1-5, UNC’s season is in the process of unraveling. Yes, they’ve looked better of late as they’ve gotten their suspended players back. And they had Virginia Tech beat, which would’ve completely changed the outlook of both team’s seasons. Still, it’s going to take a miracle for UNC to make a bowl game right now and this sure doesn’t seem like a miracle-making team.

Virginia, on the other hand, is playing the best football we’ve seen in a decade. If they continue to play their game without making mistakes they’re going to be tough to beat for the rest of the season.

Still, UNC is hungry to pull off an upset and change the discussion. And in this rivalry, nothing comes easy. It’ll be close, but the Hoos have home field advantage, a talent edge and an edge on the sidelines.

Prediction: Virginia 30, UNC 24 (Season record: 4-3)