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The Big Preview: UVA vs UNC

William & Mary v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Virginia Football opens ACC play, on the road, with the latest iteration of The South’s Oldest Rivalry.

The Hoos are riding a four game winning streak in the series, including two straight in Chapel Hill. The winning streak followed a seven game losing streak and the Hoos are five games under .500 all time in the series.

The Hoos come into this game with tons of confidence following two blowout wins. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels are coming off their own easy win over Georgia State. However, their season began with a disappointing 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. That saw them fall from their preseason 10th ranking all the way down to their current 21st ranking.

The Heels are favored by 8.

When: Saturday, September 18th, 7:30 PM Eastern
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

A year ago, UNC had two 1000 yard rushers. Both are in the NFL now.

A year ago, UNC had two receivers with over 50 receptions. Both are in the NFL now.

Losing all four of the top skill position players has obviously had an impact. Last year’s fifth rated offense struggled to move the ball against the Hokies, putting up just 10 points and 354 yards. They bounced back against Georgia State, with over 600 yards and 59 points. No disrespect meant to Georgia State, but they have one Power 5 win in their 11 year history. So let’s hold off on calling UNC’s offense back. All told, the Heels rank 31st in total offense and 44th in scoring.

Losing all of their skill position guys hurt. But the real problem has been the OL. They’ve allowed eight sacks in two games, ranking 119th nationally. That said, this was a problem last year, as the Heels ranked 113th in sacks allowed.

This is just a three man pass rush and they get to Howell way too quickly. This was a consistent problem against the Hokies.

Again, just a three man rush forces Howell out of the pocket. He’s good enough to make a play on this (the play was called back due to an offensive penalty).

Howell has good mobility, but he isn’t a guy who wants to run. He’s a guy who wants to throw and can use his legs to make a play when nothing is there in the passing game. That said, Howell is coming off his first career 100 yard rushing game against Georgia State.

This is a six man pass rush from Georgia State. There’s a reason why you don’t see many six man pass rushes. Once Howell gets away from the initial pressure, there just aren’t enough guys left to make a tackle. Howell actually leads the team in rushing this year.

GSU had just two sacks against Howell, but the game was out of reach so early that a big pass rush was pointless. If UNC’s OL is going to continue to have problems, UNC will need ways to slow down pass rushers.

This is a good example, coming against VT. The Hokies bring pressure here and Howell gets the ball out quickly on a WR screen. Because of the pressure brought, there aren’t enough defenders downfield to make a stop and Downs goes the distance. Screen passes are a great way to slow down a pass rush. Virginia did a very good job of protecting the edges against Illinois last week. Yes, that team didn’t have Howell, and maybe doesn’t have the talent that UNC has. But they had similar goals.

UNC tried to attack the edge last year, but wasn’t really able to. Sadly, they had a lot of success with their downfield passing game. They also struggled to protect Howell in that game, as Virginia had five sacks, four from Charles Snowden.

Yes, there’s a poor snap. But Howell corrals it and has time to set up in the pocket. Virginia only brought four pass rushers here and Snowden beats his man one-on-one for the sack.

Here’s an example of Virginia bringing pressure last year. It ends up a TD. Mostly, Virginia was more effective in that game with just four pass rushers. Having Snowden around certainly helped. Who can they count on this year for the big play?

Although Howell’s top targets are all gone, he still has weapons. One is Josh Downs, who scores on the WR screen above against the Hokies. He is their leading receiver this so far, including eight grabs for 123 yards against the Hokies. Antoine Green has proven to be the big play guy, averaging over 25 yards per catch so far.

Just a tremendous throw. Sixty yards in the air and right into the receivers hands. Howell completed 23/28 for 443 yards and four TDs in that game last year. If the Wahoo defense can’t keep Howell from going off again, it’s going to be a long day for Wahoo fans.

Virginia on Offense

While the Heels offense struggled in the opener, the defense has shown up in both games. In the loss to the Hokies, the Heels allowed just 296 total yards and 17 points. The first three Hokie drives totaled 211 yards, and then just 85 yards after that. Meanwhile, Georgia State totaled just 271 yards, much of which came after the game was well out of reach.

The Heels lost their leading tackler from last year, Chazz Surratt, but return almost the entire unit otherwise. Surrat was also second on the team in sacks, and TFLs and tied for the team lead in interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. He was the leader of the unit, and his loss is a big one.

The Heels run a hybrid 3-4 defense, with five DBs listed on the depth chart along with the front seven. In the opener, the Heels opened in a base 3-4. However, against Georgia State, they opened in a 3-3-5 nickel package. In both games, they spent a lot of time in that nickel package.

Both teams had some success running the ball against that nickel package. Georgia State’s lone scoring drive prior to the fourth quarter featured 17 plays (!), 13 of which were runs. They were 2/4 passing for 18 yards.

These inside handoffs are something we see a lot from Virginia’s RBs.

One from last week, and one from last year’s game. Virginia rushed for 210 yards last year, on 51 carries against just 22 passes. Some of that was game situation, as Virginia was burning clock with a late lead . But after opening with a pass, the next eight plays were runs on Virginia’s opening drive. The last of those plays is below.

We don’t know what play was called, but it looks like RPO where Armstrong has one read before taking off. Both the inside runs and the RPOs are something we’ll likely see a lot of this week.

So far, two Tar Heels safeties are among the top three tacklers. That’s usually not a good sign, as it means the ball is reaching the secondary too much. Those two safeties are very good, and they are tough over the middle. While the Hoos will attack the middle of the field with the run, they are likely to attach the edges with the pass. In particular, they should try to attack the edges with the RBs out of the backfield.

Does this play look familiar?

This was Shane Simpson from last year. Almost the same play, with Simpson going 71 yards for the score. He had a big game last year with a team leading 70 yards on the ground plus the big TD catch. Simpson is gone, but Virginia has options at RB.

UNC’s OLBs are 255 and 265 pounds, which is awfully big for a college OLB (Virginia’s are 240 and 225). Asking those guys to get out in pass coverage is tough.

That is Tomon Fox and that is pretty blatant pass interference. Fox was last year’s team leader in sacks (7) and TFLs (10.5). Why is he 20 yards downfield in man coverage on a RB? Fox’ brother, Tomari, plays DE and was third in sacks last year with four. That team last year finished tied for fifth in the nation with 36 sacks. But so far this year, they have just two in two games.

Some of that, of course, is game situations. Virginia Tech was ahead and was running the ball a lot. Georgia State was out of the game early, so there was no need for a pass rush. But, along with those 36 sacks last year, the Heels had just 69 TFLs (75th nationally in TFLs per game). They are susceptible to the run, and after two consecutive big passing games from Brennan Armstrong, his arm may take a back seat in this game to his, and his teammates’, legs.

Conclusion

If you’ve followed the media around Virginia Football this week, you’ve seen a lot of talk about how good they’ve been at home (19-2 since 2018) and how poor they’ve been on the road (3-11 over the same period). Virginia isn’t alone in that regard. It’s hard to win on the road in college football. Just ask the Heels, who played poorly against the Hokies and lost their opener.

If Virginia were to pull off a win here, it would almost knock UNC out of the Coastal division race. As much as anything else, that is why I can’t pick the Hoos. UNC needs to get a conference win. Plus it’ll be their first big home crowd in two years. That may be too much for Virginia to overcome.

Prediction: Heels 38, Virginia 28 (season record: 2-0)