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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Tar Heel Blog

We chatted with our friends to find out more about Saturday’s ACC matchup.

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

Tomorrow at 12:20 pm on Raycom, the 5-2 Virginia Cavaliers host the North Carolina Tar Heels in a pivotal tilt in the ACC Coastal Division. With Virginia Tech getting demolished by Georgia Tech on Thursday night, the Coastal is open for the taking and the Hoos are in prime position.

First, though, Virginia has to handle a test from the visiting Heels. Our very own Tiki previewed the game here, and we reached out to Akil Guruparan (@akillesheel17) at our sister site Tar Heel Blog for more info on UNC.

You can check out my answers to their questions here.

Let’s get to it!

Streaking the Lawn: North Carolina has had a tough couple games with the loss to VT and the OT fall to Cuse. Do you think that this team could be on the verge of a breakthrough? Are they better than their record indicates?

THB: ...Yes and no. I strongly believe that UNC has the talent to be a 3-3 or 4-2 team, but at the same time, they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in, due to a confluence of awful quarterback play (more on this later) and what can only be described as coaching malpractice. To the team’s credit, it’s been getting better each week since the embarrassment against Miami, so it could be building to something. The issues with finishing games aren’t new to this team, though; it was very clearly evident last year and even in the year before, when the team had one of the most potentially explosive offenses in the league and still needed last-minute heroics to stay above water.

STL: What do we need to know about the QB position? Has Nathan Elliott been dubbed “the guy”? How confident are you in him, especially factoring in the outstanding DB group Virginia has?

THB: There are two things to know about Elliott now: First, the team around him is playing much better than they were at the beginning of the season, now that they know that he really is all they have left: Chazz Surratt is out for the season, and Cade Fortin, after a very good quarter-plus against Virginia Tech, has also been sidelined with injury. This has been making his job easier. He threw four picks against Cal to open the season and has stayed interception-free since, and his throwing windows have gotten a lot bigger (though a plethora of fumbles against Miami hurts just the same). Second, Larry Fedora isn’t completely blind. He’s reduced his playbook increasingly as Elliott’s limitations have shown up game after game, to the point where well over 50% of his completions are behind the line of scrimmage. I’d venture to say any completed pass 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage is a bonus at this point for the Heels’ offense. The UNC receivers’ skill after the catch has allowed this to work pretty well against two pretty good teams the last two games, so I’d say that the UVA defensive backs’ tackling skills will be tested much more than their cover and ball skills.

STL: At times it seems like Coach Fedora refuses to stick with the running game even when it’s working. How much does the running game factor into this one, especially after Williams’ big game against Cuse?

THB: Fedora sees the above-mentioned screens and swing passes as extensions of the run game, so though you might look at the box score and say, “hmm... UNC has two enormously talented backs and a third who isn’t exactly a slouch, either, and yet Nathan Elliott threw 52 passes while the three combined for 32 carries,” he would answer that at least half of those passes are basically runs, so he’s not abandoning the run game at all so much as getting his talented wide receivers involved in it.

That said, UNC’s running backs have been too good to take that many touches away from, especially Antonio Williams and Michael Carter, both averaging over 6.5 yards per carry on the season. That’s nearly a yard better than Elliott’s YPA, which is absolutely absurd. Again, I can’t believe Fedora is that blind to what’s happening right in front of him. I suspect that, as long as UNC stays within a score, he’ll get those two, and Jordon Brown as well, involved early and often. Carter has recently struggled with fumbles at crucial times, though, so that’s something to look out for if Fedora moves away from him at big moments despite earlier success.

STL: Who is a player to know on both sides of the ball (someone we may not be familiar with)?

THB: True freshman receiver Dyami Brown has really found a groove recently. He’s been consistently solid this season, but his game against Syracuse was one of his best in terms of route-running, running through and around contact, and getting yards after the catch. He’s an extremely toolsy receiver who’s also been much more polished than expected for a true freshman, and he could be trouble for the UVA DBs.

On defense, it has to be senior defensive end Malik Carney, who hasn’t gained a lot of national recognition but has been absolutely dominant this year. He is sixth in the ACC in sacks with 5.5. He’s played 3 games, less than half the total of everybody ahead of him. He’s also a very good run defender, with another 2 tackles for loss in those 3 games, and has generally been playing his senior year with a vengeance after being good, but underwhelming, for his first three.

STL: UVA QB Bryce Perkins has been a pain to opposing defenses with his ability to rush but also keep plays alive. How does UNC fare against mobile QBs, and what’s the best way to stop him?

THB: Before last week, I would have wholeheartedly said that UNC’s discipline and linebacking talent weren’t good enough to contain a good mobile quarterback. That’s still not entirely false, but keeping Eric Dungey to 42 yards on 15 carries is no small feat. Dungey made a couple of magical plays happen, but for the most part, the edge rush in particular was able to keep him from breaking totally loose. UNC’s cornerbacks also were very good at keeping up with improvising receivers. So maybe it was a one-game thing, but I think UNC can hang with mobile quarterbacks. The linebackers are still suspect, though, so if you want to attack with a mobile quarterback, I’d say emphasize sealing the edge and allowing Perkins to go one-on-one with them would be the best way to go about it.

STL: Prediction time...who ya got?!

THB: Honestly, except against Pittsburgh, I just can’t believe that Nathan Elliott can win a Power 5 game until he actually makes it happen. It might be overly pessimistic, but it is what it is. Another one-score game seems plausible, though. Hoos win it, 27-23.

Thanks, Akil! Let us know your predictions below in the comments!