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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers Host the North Carolina Tar Heels

Will the losing streak continue, or will the Hoos make some Halloween magic?

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Football’s season is spiraling out of control. Now sitting at 1-4 and riding a four game losing streak, the Cavaliers need to start turning things around quickly. Unfortunately for the Hoos, No. 15 North Carolina and its high-flying offense is coming to town.

Heading into the South’s Oldest Rivalry, the Hoos and Heels seem to be heading in opposite directions. UNC is ranked and coming off a big win over NC State, while the Cavaliers are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Miami and are going to need to pull off an upset or two just to reach .500 for the season.

The Heels are surprisingly favored by just seven points heading into the game.

When: Saturday, October 31, 8PM Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium
TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

UNC QB Sam Howell was the first true freshman ever to start a season opener for the Tar Heels. He broke a number of records last season, including the FBS and North Carolina record for touchdowns by a true freshman with 38. He was named third team All-ACC and a freshman All-American last season.

Thing is, despite all those records, he’s actually throwing the ball less as a sophomore. Some of that is because of game situations, but he threw the ball just 23 times against Virginia Tech (a 56-45 win). Of those 23, he completed 18 passes for 257 yards and three TDs. The Heels ran for almost 400 yards in the game, so why throw it when you’re rushing for almost 10 yards per play?

In the Tar Heels only loss this year, at FSU, the Noles were able to get pressure on Howell. They also forced a pick six, one of few mistakes Howell has made this year.

Frankly, this is just an outstanding play by the FSU DE. Howell could’ve put more air under the pass, but that guy is 6’7, and not many DEs in the country can make that play.

The reason Howell is throwing less this year is that UNC is running the ball incredibly well. Comparing season numbers this year doesn’t work, so let’s look at per game. Michael Carter rushed for 77 yards per game last year, at 5.8 yards per carry. Javonte Williams rushed for 71 yards per game last year, at 5.6 yards per carry. This year, Carter averages 117 yards per game at 7.9 yards per carry, and Williams is at 112 yards per game at 6.9 yards per carry. That’s pretty good.

The two RBs are perfectly complementary. Carter is 5’8, 199 pounds, quick, and has good top end speed. Williams is 5’10, 220 and is a big bruising back. There’s a reason why Williams has 10 TDs on the season, while Carter has just three.

This is Carter. Patience and speed:

This is Williams. Diving arm tackles are not going to bring him down:

Even Howell gets in on the action running the ball. He’s a dangerous runner, making a Wolfpack defender look bad here. He’s rushed for just 42 yards on the year, but that includes sacks. And sacks are a problem.

Last year, the Heels ranked 113th in sacks allowed at 2.85 per game. This year, they’ve improved...to 2.80 per game. That ranks 74th out of 101 (25 of those 101 have only played 1 game). This isn’t entirely an indictment of the OL, as the running game shows how strong they can be. Some of it is Howell trying to make plays:

This goes down as a sack, but certainly Howell had time to throw the ball away.

North Carolina’s success running the ball leads to play action:

Howell doesn’t even step into this throw and he throws it 50 yards. The throw is actually a bit late as Dyami Brown has to slow down to make the catch and stay in bounds. But he’s so open that it doesn’t matter. We have seen plays like this far too often against the Hoos this year.

There’s no play action on this one. Just a WR running past the defense. That’s Noah Taylor in deep coverage there. Noah is a very good LB with real NFL potential, but he shouldn’t be covering a wide receiver 40 yards downfield. Obviously, injuries have impacted how the Virginia defense is deployed, but this does not seem like a successful strategy.

The Wahoo defense finally got back to pressuring the QB last week against Miami:

Charles Snowden comes on a stunt and just pushes the RB right into his QB (Miami was called for intentional grounding on the play). That’s the Snowden we all expected to see this year and exactly what the Wahoo defense needs.

That defense totaled five sacks and 11 tackles for a loss last week. That is getting it done. That kind of pressure usually comes with a turnover or two. It didn’t last week, but forcing a turnover or two will be huge this week. Mostly just because it gets the defense off the field without giving up any points.

Virginia on Offense

At least on paper, the Wahoo offense has not been bad this year. They’re 46th nationally in total offense (out of 101). But they’re just 75th in scoring offense, and a big part of that is turnovers. They’re 96th nationally in turnovers lost. But last week, they did not turn the ball over at all against a very good and very aggressive Miami defense. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. If they can manage to hold on to the ball this week against UNC, that’ll really help.

UNC’s defense hasn’t been as impressive as their offense, but they’ve held their own. They rank 39th nationally in total defense and 35th in scoring defense. This defense is not all that dissimilar from the Wahoo defense. They also run a 3-4 and they also get a majority of their production from the LBs.

The star of the show is MLB Chazz Surratt. If that name is familiar to you, it’s because he was the Heels’ starting QB back in 2017. He did not face Virginia, but saw action in nine games and wasn’t bad. But the team finished just 3-9. He didn’t play much in 2018 and then was first team All-ACC last year as a junior playing defense for the first time.

This is serious closing speed. Syracuse QB Tommy Devito moves very well and he’s got a ton of space when he’s flushed outside. Surratt is inside the hash mark and just shuts down the space.

The initial pressure there is from senior OLB Tomon Fox, who is tied with Surratt for the team lead with four sacks. Fox’s younger brother, Tomari Fox, plays DE and is next with three sacks. As a team, the Heels are 18th nationally in sacks (three per game). But nearly half of their 15 sacks came in the opener against Syracuse. They managed just one in the loss to FSU.

Of course, a big part of why they didn’t get sacks against FSU was that FSU didn’t throw the ball much. With a mobile QB and Louisville transfer Jordan Travis in the game, they didn’t need to. Nineteen pass attempts against 36 rush attempts. Yes, this was partly because they had an early lead, but it was planned.

This was FSU’s first offensive play of the game. Travis reads the edge defender and takes off on the read-option. Then it’s just natural running ability. Virginia has several QBs with similar running skills that could take advantage of this aggressive defense.

This is Keytaon Thompson on the QB keeper. We also saw similar plays from Iraken Armstead over the last two weeks.

But when it comes to throwing the ball, it’s Armstrong’s show. Last week, despite combining for at least 10 snaps, the two “backup” QBs attempted one pass. Against Wake Forest, that duo combined for at least 16 snaps and attempted one pass.

There were a few plays against Miami where it seemed Armstead or Thompson had the option to pass. Most likely, it’s a single read and then take off. Even just that little threat of the pass is enough to hold the defense at bay.

But even without a real threat of the pass, they have been successful. Over the two games, Thompson has rushed for 96 yards on 15 carries (6.4 yards per carry), while Armstead has rushed for 68 yards on 10 carries (6.8 yards per carry). Those are both better than Wayne Taulapapa’s impressive 6.3 yards per carry over the same two games, .

Combine all of that with the undebatable fact that Armstrong has been a better runner than passer thus far in his career, and this should be a run based offense. Armstrong is just 79th (out of 91) nationally in passing efficiency. But, after removing sacks, he’s rushed for nearly 6 yards per carry, which is in the top 40 nationally.

So why have the Hoos thrown 231 passes against just 177 rush attempts? Partly, because they’ve trailed in the last four games. Against Duke, they rushed 56 times against 40 passes. That certainly seems to be the game plan going in. But by falling behind early, the team is not able to play to their strengths, and this is not a team built to fight back in a game by throwing the ball.

Thing is, this might be the week to attack via the air. Even Armstead and Thompson should be looking to throw the ball. UNC can be beaten through the air. They have just the 59th ranked pass defense in the nation. However, they are 12th in passing yards per completion. That’s because of the aggression and the pass rush. QBs have to get rid of the ball quickly, and that has not been Armstrong’s strength thus far.

UNC’s secondary is, easily, the weakness of the team. This is a very inexperienced unit, with just 21 total starts (entering the season) among the five starters. Although UNC lists a 3-4 front seven, they also list five DBs and play a lot of nickel. Nineteen of those starts are the nickel beck, junior Trey Morrison. Three of the starters had barely played prior to this year. This group can be beaten, but it is a rather big group, averaging six feet and over 200 pounds. Lavel Davis was out against Miami, and it’d be nice to get him back, but this may be a game for the smaller, quicker guys to shine.

Although Davis has been the big play guy, Billy Kemp and Terrell Jana lead the team in receptions, by far. But it’s mostly been short catches. Kemp averages under nine yards per receptions, which ranks around 300th in the nation. Jana is at 12.2, which is better but still barely in the top 200. (Davis doesn’t have enough catches, but his 23.3 would rank in the top 10.)

This was a long time coming (and even this needed a slip from the defender). The Hoos need more of this. Kemp, Jana and Tavares Kelly are all very dangerous with the ball in their hands, but they really just haven’t made the necessary plays. Turns out losing Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed would have a big impact on the offense. Who knew?

In five games, the Hoos have just 15 plays of 20 yards or more. One of those is a fake punt, and five are freshman Lavel Davis. The guys who are supposed to be making plays simply aren’t. Until that changes, this offense is going to struggle.

Conclusion

UNC was getting quite a bit of hype heading into the season, in large part due to Sam Howell. Still, many UVA fans predicted a win in this contest. But while UNC has largely lived up to the hype, the Hoos have fallen flat. It seems hard to predict a win in this game. Still the path to a win isn’t complex.

UNC is going to score points. That offense is too good. The easiest way to limit a good offense is to keep them on the sidelines. If Virginia doesn’t turn it over, consistently moves the football and wins the time of possession, that’ll go a long way towards winning the game.

Play a clean game on offense, don’t give up big plays, and get a couple of big plays in their direction and the Hoos can absolutely win this game. But none of that seems likely.

Prediction: Tar Heels 38, Hoos 24 (Season record 3-2)