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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. North Carolina Tar Heels

The top two teams in the Coastal face off.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers have now squandered a number of opportunities to take control of the ACC Coastal division by losing road games that they should’ve won. They get another opportunity this week, and simply must get their act together on the road.

The schedule makers did Virginia no favors with four road games in five weeks. It’s not that surprising that they’ve struggled in those games so far, but they do finish the regular season with three home games, which could help them right the ship.

Right now, the Hoos and Tar Heels are currently tied atop the standings at 3-2 in conference. The winner of this game will take control of the division with a one-game lead as well as the tiebreaker. Both teams have two remaining conference games, although both of Carolina’s remaining games are on the road.

That the Heels are even in this discussion is remarkable. The expectations were very low for a team coming off a two-win season, bringing Mack Brown back after five years in the broadcast booth and starting a true freshman at QB.

Virginia on Defense

That true freshman QB, Sam Howell, has been a revelation this year. He’s taken nearly every snap for the Heels this year and has been one of the best QBs in the ACC, leading the conference in pass yards and TDs and has thrown just five INTs in eight games. He’s the biggest reason why UNC is so far ahead of expectations.

His completion percentage is just 59%, which highlights his accuracy issues. That’s really his only weakness as a passer. When his feet are set, he can make every throw. But when he’s forced to move, he can be erratic. He’s not the most mobile of QBs, though he has good feet.

This is a picture perfect throw and indicative of what he’s capable of, if he has time to throw. He threw two picks against Duke last week, both on plays where he was outside of the pocket.

If you can get pressure on Howell, you can stop him. OK, yes that’s true of almost all QBs, and especially for a true freshman, but Howell has been so good and so composed all year that it’s surprising when he makes a mistake. Getting pressure will be key. If he’s comfortable in the pocket, he’ll pick the depleted Virginia secondary apart.

The OL for the Heels is not a very experienced unit. There are, however, big: the unit is made up of one senior, three sophomores and a freshman, and they average over 321 pounds. They’ve given up a lot of sacks (26, tied with Virginia for 2nd most in the ACC). Many of those have been speed rushes.

The UNC offense ranks 40th in the nation, around the same as what they ranked last season when they had a senior QB (Nathan Elliott) at the helm. Outside of Howell, the offense is mostly established guys. The WR corps is a sophomore and two juniors, all of whom had extensive experience last season. The same is true of the RB tandem that have split carries all season, Michael Carter (soph) and Javonte Williams (junior).

One of the reason’s Howell has been successful is his WR corps. Check out this catch that Dazz Newsome made last week.

That’s amazing. These guys have been making plays all year. Newsome led the team in receptions last year and is a very good possession guy. He leads the team in receptions (by a wide margin), yards and TDs. Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales are the other two starters, and both can be big play guys. Howell also utilizes his RBs in the passing game. Carter has 15 receptions and Williams has 11.

This is a good offense. Virginia has seen better, especially on the OL. If Virginia can get pressure on Howell, they could force a couple of turnovers. That’s how they’ll win.

Virginia on Offense

Obviously, something is wrong with Virginia’s offense. A year ago, Virginia ranked 81st in total offense, and right now they’re 108th. Yes, they lost Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheaus, and yes they lost a couple of OLs. But the offense has been getting worse and worse as the season has progressed. They broke 30 in their first three games, and have done so just once since then.

A big part of the problem is obviously the lack of a rushing attack. The rushing offense ranks 123rd. That group ranked 60th last year. The team is passing a lot more to make up for the lack of a rushing game, but the passing simply isn’t efficient enough. Bryce Perkins threw 349 passes last year, and is currently on pace to throw 447 over the same number of games. That’s a huge difference.

As a team, they averaged 4.5 yards per carry a year ago. This year, that number is down to 3.3 ypc. That’s 11th lowest in the nation. None of the teams below them are even near first place or are over .500, which just shows how great the Virginia defense has been. They are also 11th worst in sacks. Those two things point directly at the OL.

Another big problem I’ve mentioned before is the lack of big plays. The team’s longest play from scrimmage is 49 yards. That’s second worst in the nation, ahead of only ODU. So they can’t run the ball, they don’t hit any big plays, and they are also 116th nationally in turnovers lost. That’s the making of a very poor offense.

Yes, the OL is a problem. But the OL hasn’t lost 10 fumbles or thrown 10 INTs. It isn’t all on the OL. It’s on Perkins. It’s on the RBs. And it’s on Robert Anae. He’s the offensive coordinator, and that’s the unit that’s keeping Virginia from being an elite team. Complaints about his playcalling are growing. Complaints about his personnel groupings are growing as well. Starting RB Wayne Taulapapa has one reception on the season and that came in the opener. Backup Lamont Atkins has seven. Defenses key on this. When Atkins is in, it’s a pass. When Taulapapa is in, it’s either a run or he’s not a threat.

Here’s a breakdown of Virginia’s first five drives in the second half.

  • Drive 1: A big run for Perkins, followed by two poor run plays and then a short pass on third and long.
  • Drive 2: A big pass to Terrell Jana, followed by three poorly run pass plays.
  • Drive 3: A run and the pass for a first down, followed by a fumble by Joe Reed.
  • Drive 4: A first down from Perkins followed by two poor run plays and a sack on third down.
  • Drive 5: Three straight passes for a first down, followed by two runs and then an incomplete pass on third down.

There just isn’t enough play differentiation. They pick up a big first down, but then go right back to the well. When you pick up a big play on the ground, maybe that’s a time for some play-action. Or a run-pass-option. Perkins needs more freedom to make plays outside of the basic offense.

I’ve said this before, but this week seems like a week to, perhaps, figure it out. UNC’s defense is not good. They’ve been opportunistic, with 21 turnovers forced. But they still rank 105th in the nation. The rush defense is 111th. That’s not really any worse than Louisville was last week, and Virginia could not take advantage.

The Tar Heels run a base 3-3-5 scheme. They were a 4-3 team prior to this year, so there’s a lot of change. That explains the struggles. There’s talent, especially on the DL. The LBs are young and undersized. The DBs are solid, although freshman CB Storm Duck (great name) has struggled.

Those undersized LBs have caused problems with the run defense. Especially on power runs. Check out Wake’s Jamie Newman running over and through those LBs for a TD.

That’s a 6’4” 230 lb QB who refuses to go down. Perkins is similar in size. If Anae lets Perkins free to make plays, he could have a big game on the ground.

That same defense shut down All-American Travis Ettienne against Clemson. Ettienne isn’t a power runner, he’s a speed runner. Those undersized LBs can run. Chazz Surratt is an inside LB and leads the team in tackles. He was also the starting QB two years ago. He had the game sealing INT last week against Duke.

Not sure what Duke was trying here. And Surratt just seems to be in the correct place and the ball was thrown right to him. Still, he was there for a reason.

This might be the week to give P.K. Kier some touches. UNC has struggled with bigger backs, and Kier is the biggest Virginia has. A zone-read with 230 lb Perkins and 230 lb Kier would be scary to UNC’s ILBs (228 lbs and 230 lbs). Even just a little bit of success on the ground would go a long way towards making this offense him again.

Conclusion

The way the Hoos have looked on the road over the past month doesn’t give a whole lot of confidence going into this game. In some ways, this matchup seems good for Virginia. But it would take an effort that we haven’t seen from this team on the road since the opener at Pitt. And we haven’t seen a 60 minute effort since FSU.

We know the defense will do its job. It comes down to Virginia’s offense against a struggling UNC defense. Can they avoid the costly mistakes that continue to doom drives? And can they hit on a big play or two?

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Prediction: Tar Heels 24, Virginia 20 (season record: 7-1)