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THE BIG PREVIEW: UVA Football Hosts #17 North Carolina

‘Hoos welcome the Tar Heels to town in what is probably a must-win for Tony Elliott’s squad.

Virginia v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Against Miami, the Virginia Cavaliers’ defense was outstanding. The offense was horrendous. That makes for unpleasant football. Similarly, Miami’s defense was outstanding, and their offense was equally horrendous. That makes for some unwatchable football. Lucky for me, it was blacked out on the ESPN app, so I couldn’t watch anyway.

The loss put the ‘Hoos at 3-5, 1-4 in the ACC. That’s last place in the Coastal. The Heels are in first place in the Coastal, and are 7-1 overall.

Maybe you recall last year’s game down in Chapel Hill. The two teams combined for 98 points and 1300 yards. UNC won 59-39, but Brennan Armstrong set the school record for single-game passing with 553 yards. The Heels rushed for almost 400 yards.

Oh how times have changed, at least for Wahoos. Armstrong is still setting records, but these are records in futility as Virginia’s offense can’t get out of its own way. Last week against Miami, the Wahoos had 327 yards of offense and ran 10 plays from inside Miami’s 10 yard line without getting into the end-zone even once.

This game is a big chance for Virginia to right the ship and take down a long-time rival.

Virginia on Defense

Last year’s Tar Heel QB Sam Howell is a backup in the NFL now, meaning UNC would have to take a step back at QB this year. Right? Right?

Howell struggled last year, at least in comparison to his previous season, but still put up over 3000 yards passing and another 800 rushing, with 24 TD passes (9 INTs) and 11 TD runs. Pretty good numbers. Well, Drake Maye, through eight games, has 2600 yards passing and 400 rushing. He is on pace for well over 4000 yards and pushing 50 TDs. And he’s a redshirt freshman.

On this play, Maye steps up to avoid the pass rush and makes a tough throw across his body to his streaking receiver. This may not seem like much, but it’s a tremendous play.

Led by Maye, the Heels have the eighth best offense in the nation and the sixth best passing offense. Their 56th ranked rushing offense pales in comparison. And yet, still in the top half of the nation.

As we discussed last week, the Virginia defense matches up well with pass-first teams as their pass defense is far better than their rush defense. Virginia ranks 25th in pass defense, 22nd in pass efficiency defense and eighth in sacks. They are 73rd in rush defense and 72nd in TFLs.

Miami was just 5/17 on third downs, and this is a good example of why. Virginia doesn’t bring a blitz. Just four pass rushers, leaving seven in coverage against a five receiver set. You can’t see it in this clip, but Jake Garcia has nobody to throw to. And he feels the pressure from the four man pass rush, forcing him out of the pocket and the defense is there to stop him for a minimal gain, forcing a punt. (You could argue Miami should’ve gone for it down three, considering how well their defense was playing. But that’s for a different blog.)

Virginia held Miami to 125 yards passing and 147 yards rushing. Both averaged 3.9 yards per play. Holding a team to 3.9 yards rushing is good. Holding a team to 3.9 yards per pass is outstanding. Sure, playing Miami’s backup QB helped, but Louisville’s backup QB torched the ‘Hoos just a few weeks ago. Simply put, this defense is playing very well right now.

But can they slow down a very good UNC offense? Although UNC is balanced, having thrown 283 passes to 287 rush attempts, the pass offense ranks 6th while the rush offense ranks 56th. Maye and his receivers are the bigger key. Maye is actually the team’s leader in both rush attempts and yards. True freshman Omarion Hampton is the top RB, and leads the team with six TDs on the ground. Hampton was one of the top RB recruits in the nation.

Josh Downs is the leader with 48 receptions on the team. That’s more than double anybody else.

This is a big play to Downs, who averages just 10 yards per reception. He is a little like Billy Kemp. This is a great play all around. At the end of the clip, you can see the safety come into the play. If Maye leads Downs more, it might get picked off. He deliberately under-throws it just slightly, allowing Downs to adjust to the ball.

Despite his huge lead in receptions, Downs is just second on the team in yards, because of big play guy Antoine Green. Green’s 23 catches have gone for 564 yards. Downs’ 48 grabs have gained 527 yards.

A similar play to the Downs play above. This ball isn’t under-thrown though, and there’s no safety help in the end-zone. This looks to be an RPO, with Maye finding his man open in the back of the end-zone. The coverage from the Hokies was poor, and Virginia will have to be better.

Virginia’s defense has been a pleasant surprise this season, and like last week, they match up pretty well with UNC’s pass first offense. Problem is, this is the best QB Virginia has faced this season, and arguably the best offense they’ve faced. Shutting down UNC is a far bigger ask than shutting down Miami’s backup QB.

Virginia on Offense

If you hold an ACC team to 272 yards and 0 TDs, you need to win that game. This offense is just a disaster right now. The execution is so bad, the only successful plays are basically just individual efforts.

Hard to know what Armstrong’s first read was intended to be here, but he does a good job of feeling the pass rush and getting rid of the ball. Mike Hollins does a very good job of leaking out and then making something out of nothing once he has the ball. But, he steps out at the three yard line and the ‘Hoos are unable to punch it in. While you’d like Hollins to score here, you can’t really fault him after a 60+ yard play.

Here’s another big play which fell short.

We discussed last week how Miami could be beaten deep if Armstrong could stay upright. Well, it played out here, but Armstrong is very late with the pass, and he ends up under-throwing it. He threw it 50 yards, near the end of his arm strength. But Davis is wide open for a long time before the ball gets there. Armstrong needs to be better.

This is the play immediately following the long pass to Davis.

I don’t hate this play call in a vacuum. If Thompson is able to get the edge, he scores. But the play is busted up in the middle by Miami’s Leonard Taylor, a 305 pound DT who was a five-star recruit. Ty Furnish is tasked with blocking him, and Ty is just 280. That’s just not a good job of putting players in a position to succeed.

This has been mentioned before, but Virginia’s game plans and play calls too often rely on individuals winning their one-on-one battles. But Virginia’s talent level, especially on the OL, isn’t there yet. I get that Virginia didn’t run the ball well against Miami. But it’s first and goal from the 3, and the ‘Hoos averaged 3.6 yards per carry. One 3.6 yard carry is a score. A TD there would’ve been huge in that moment. Instead, it’s a FG. And it’s a loss.

Struggling in short yardage against a very good Miami front four is not that surprising. Things should get better this week, as UNC simply isn’t as good up front.

Pitt was successful on two short goal-line TDs. Nothing fancy, just a nice job by the OL and the RB finds his hole and finishes the run. If Virginia gets the ball down inside the five as they did last week, they need TDs.

Miami currently has the 34th ranked defense in the nation. UNC has the 122nd ranked defense in the country. Safe to say that Virginia should have more success this week.

Incidentally, do you know who has the #1 defense in the country? It’s Illinois. That loss doesn’t look quite so bad. Neither does the Duke loss. What looked like an easy early-season schedule was anything but. Syracuse, Duke, Louisville and Illinois have all exceeded early-season expectations. Meanwhile, Pitt and Virginia Tech are probably worse than we expected and can be beaten.

UNC’s 122nd ranked defense actually does not show just how bad they are. The Heels are 103rd in rush defense, 121st in pass defense, 110th in pass efficiency defense, 97th in sacks, 120th in TFLs, 124th in first down defense, 90th in third down defense. It is just a bad unit.

Like many football teams these days, including Virginia, the Heels run a 4-2-5/3-3-5 hybrid. Up front there’s a JACK position, which is a hybrid OLB/DE. The starter for most of the season at JACK was Noah Taylor, a familiar name to Wahoo fans. Taylor transferred to UNC following Bronco Mendenhall’s departure. Taylor leads the Heels in both sacks and TFLs. However, he is out for the season with a knee injury. The injuries have always been a problem for Taylor, but UNC used him in the right way. He was a pure pass rusher for them, and hopefully (for him anyway) has done enough to pique the interest of NFL scouts.

With or without Taylor, the Heels have to bring extra pass rushers to get pressure. Of their 13 team sacks this season, just three have come from the DL. It’s the LBs and it’s the safeties.

Here is one of Taylor’s sacks. The play is actually made by CB Tony Grimes on a blitz. Taylor just cleans up after Van Dyke avoids the initial rush. Even against Virginia’s poor OL, the Heels are going to need to bring extra pressure to get to Armstrong. If they blitz, somebody is open and Armstrong needs to make plays. And guys need to catch the ball.

Once again, I’ve mentioned this before. Tony Elliott and his staff really just don’t care about team record right now. Obviously, they want to win. But instituting a culture and a system is more important to them. The hope is that it will pay dividends down the road. But it’ll still require more talent on the field. And that talent isn’t going to come if Virginia keeps playing bad, uninspired, boring football.


UNC’s defense is bad, and offense is good. Where have been seen that before? On the other hand, Virginia’s offense is bad and their defense is good. But is it good enough?

UNC is going to score, and Virginia will have to outscore to win this game. Does anybody really think Virginia can score with the Heels right now? Of course not.

Prediction: Tar Heels 30, Virginia 20