2011 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. North Carolina

, TechSideline.com, on November 15, 2011
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  • Date: Thursday, November 17th, 2011
  • Time: 8:00
  • TV: ESPN)


Virginia Tech can clinch at least a share of the ACC Coastal Division when
North Carolina comes to town for a big Thursday night game. If in-state rival
UVA ends up losing to Florida State on Saturday, that means a Thursday night win
over the Tar Heels would send the Hokies to Charlotte where they would get a
rematch with the Clemson Tigers.

As usual for the Hokies, these November games mean a lot, and fortunately
Virginia Tech is 25-2 in their last 27 November games, an impressive stat.

North Carolina is 6-4 this season, and they have been an up-and-down,
inconsistent football team. Two games ago, they scored 49 points against a
decent Wake Forest defense. In their last game, they were blanked 13-0 by a
below average NC State defense.

The Tar Heels also have losses to Georgia Tech (35-28), Miami (30-24), and
Clemson (59-38). Their most impressive wins this season were in back-to-back
games in September when they knocked off Rutgers (24-22) and Virginia (28-17),
who are now a combined 14-5.

UNC has no chance to win the Coastal Division, but they are trying to improve
their positioning for the postseason. Winning their last two games against
Virginia Tech and Duke would help a lot.

The North Carolina Offense

The UNC offense has been very bad at times, and very good at times. From a
numbers standpoint they are very average, though they certainly have good talent
at every position on the field.

The
UNC Offense
CategoryStatRank
Rushing144.8 ypg72
Passing244.5 ypg48
Total389.3 ypg62
Scoring28.2 ppg60
Pass Eff.161.1210
Third Downs40.91%63
TFL Allowed6 per game73
Sacks Allowed2.3 per game84

Bryn Renner (6-3, 215, r-So.) is the sophomore signal caller for the Tar Heels,
and he is a talented player who has put up big numbers this year. Renner is
completing 71.4% of his passes for 2,271 yards on the season. He has thrown 19
touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

At times, interceptions have been a problem for Renner. He threw two in UNC’s
loss to Georgia Tech, three when the Tar Heels fell to Clemson, and two more in
their last game against NC State (before being knocked out of the game with a
slight concussion). Still, he is very advanced for a r-sophomore.

Renner grew up a Virginia Tech fan. His father, Bill, played football for the
Hokies, and his grandparents were long-time season ticket holders in Lane
Stadium. He spent his childhood wearing orange and maroon, but he now wears baby
blue because he felt that the pro style offense of Butch Davis was a better path
to the NFL.

Renner has a couple of very good wide receivers to work with. Dwight Jones
(6-4, 225, Sr.) is a big, physical target who has caught 63 passes for 913 yards
and eight touchdowns on the season. He will be a relatively early pick in next
April’s NFL Draft. He has help from Erik Highsmith (6-3, 190, Jr.), who has 36
catches for 518 yards and three touchdowns.

UNC’s deep threat is Jheranie Boyd (6-2, 190, Jr.), but he has just 11
catches for 197 yards and four touchdowns. Boyd has great speed, but he hasn’t
yet developed into a complete receiver.

Giovani Bernard (5-10, 205, r-Fr.) is being overshadowed by Clemson’s Sammy
Watkins, but he is still one of the best freshman football players in the
country. He is third in receiving at UNC with 35 receptions, and he averages
over 100 yards per game on the ground. Bernard has 1,012 yards and 11 touchdowns
on the season, and he is averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the process. He is far
and away UNC’s best tailback.

Ryan Houston (6-2, 245, Sr.) will also get time, but he isn’t nearly as
explosive as Bernard. Houston is averaging 3.5 yards on 71 carries this year,
but he can be a very effective back in short yardage situations.

North Carolina is a pro style offense, and they will use a lot of power
formations with tight ends Nelson Hurst (6-4, 260, Jr.), Christian Wilson (6-3,
250, Sr.) and Eric Ebron (6-4, 230, Fr.). Curtis Byrd (6-1, 255, Sr.) is a very
big fullback as well, and an effective lead blocker.

UNC’s offensive line is the biggest and baddest the Hokies have faced since
they played Miami, and we all remember what happened in that game.


The UNC Offensive Line

Pos.

Player

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.
LT James Hurst 6-7 310 So.
LG Jonathan Cooper 6-3 305 r-Jr.
C Cam Holland 6-2 320 r-Sr.
RG Travis Bond 6-7 345 Jr.
RT Brennan Williams 6-7 315 Jr.

Combine that offensive line with a very big fullback, and two tight ends with
good size, and you’ve got a recipe for a power running team that can work the
playaction down the field. That’s exactly what North Carolina likes to do.

One thing the Carolina offense doesn’t do well is protect the passer. They
have allowed 23 sacks on the season, and they’ll be facing one of the top pass
rushing defenses in the country on Thursday night. 22 of those sacks have come
in the last seven games. The sacks they have allowed have cut into their running
totals. The Tar Heels are only 72nd in the country in rushing, despite the
numbers that Giovani Bernard has put up.

The Hokies will be back to their base defense this week, which means that J.R.
Collins will play defensive end and Luther Maddy will be in the starting lineup
at defensive tackle. That will give Tech more size up front, which they will
need to deal with Carolina’s size on the offensive line, tight end and fullback.

The Tar Heels will come to Blacksburg and try to run the ball down Virginia
Tech’s throat, and then they’ll try to beat the Hokies down the field with
playaction. UNC won’t use spread formations, but other than that their
philosophies are very similar to Tech’s.

The North Carolina Defense

North Carolina has one of the most talented front sevens in the country, and
this is the most athletic front seven Virginia Tech has faced all season.


The UNC Defense

Category

Stat

Rank
Rushing 108.3 ypg 18
Passing 248.1 ypg 90
Total 356.4 ypg 42
Scoring 23.7 ppg 47
Pass Eff. 128.91 60
Third Downs 40.67% 66
TFL 6.5 per game 37
Sacks 2.1 per game 46

The Tar Heels have been outstanding against the run all season, but their
secondary has struggled with giving up big plays down the field.

The defensive line is big, talented, experienced, and they can all run.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each player.

Quinton Coples (6-6, 290, Sr.): One of the top defensive linemen in the
country, Coples has played end and tackle during his career. He has 7.5 tackles
for loss and 4.5 sacks on the year.

Tydreke Powell (6-3, 305, Sr.): A former Virginia Tech recruiting target,
Powell has been a very good interior lineman for UNC for his entire career. He
has 4.5 tackles for loss this year.

Sylvester Williams (6-3, 315, Jr.): Williams is a big body who is tough to
block on the interior. He often plays in the backfield, with 5.5 tackles for
loss this season.

Kareem Martin (6-6, 260, So.): Virginia Tech recruited Martin heavily, and
with good reason. He is a great prospect at defensive end. He has six tackles
for loss and four sacks, and would be a great fit in the Tech defense.

Besides those starters, UNC also has the talented Donte Paige-Moss (6-4, 260,
Jr.) at defensive end, and he is a future NFL player in his own right. Jordan
Nix (6-3, 290, Sr.), Shawn Underwood (6-1, 300, Fr.) and Ethan Farmer (6-3, 280,
r-Fr.) provide quality depth at defensive tackle.

The Tar Heels have a talented, athletic group of linebackers behind that
defensive line. Zach Brown (6-2, 230, So.) is one of the most physically gifted
linebackers in the country, and many project him as a first round draft pick in
April. He leads the team with 71 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss and a
team-high 5.5 sacks.

Middle linebacker Kevin Reddick (6-3, 240, Jr.) is one of the most
experienced players on the North Carolina defense. He has been starting since he
was a true freshman, and he has 57 tackles, six tackles for loss and a sack. The
final member of the front seven is Darius Lipford (6-3, 230, So.). Lipford is a
talented player who chose the Tar Heels over Clemson and South Carolina out of
high school.

With Quinton Coples and Zach Brown, there are at least two future first round
draft picks in the North Carolina front seven, and there’s no telling how high a
guy like Kareem Martin might go in a few years. It’s easy to see why this front
seven is one of the best in the country.

The secondary, on the other hand, hasn’t been particularly good. Starting
free safety Matt Merletti was lost for the season several weeks ago, but even
before his injury the secondary was giving up too many big plays.

Charles Brown (5-10, 205, Sr.) is the top defensive back on the team, and he
has two interceptions with seven other passes defended this season. Brown was
caught up in the scandal at UNC last year, but is back to finish his career in
2011.

Starting opposite Brown is Tim Scott (5-11, 180, Fr.), a true freshman from
Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, VA. Virginia Tech didn’t offer Scott out
of high school, and you can bet that the Tech coaching has been coming up with
some ways to isolate him against guys like Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, the
most experienced wide receivers in the ACC.

The strong safety is Jonathan Smith (6-2, 210, Sr.), while Tre Boston (6-1,
190, So.) has taken over the free safety position. Gene Robinson (5-11, 190,
Jr.) will split time with Boston at free safety.

Overall, UNC’s secondary has dropped off considerably from last year’s group
of Kendric Burney, Da’Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams. That trio made up one
of the most talented secondaries in the country, and North Carolina hasn’t been
able to replace them effectively. The Tar Heels have been burned for eight
touchdown passes of 25 yards or more this season, and they’ve only played a
couple of teams who are capable of throwing the ball down the field on a
consistent basis.

Expect Virginia Tech to attack North Carolina through the air early and
often. That UNC front seven is the best the Hokies will face all year. To give
you an example of how good they are, they held Lamar Miller of Miami to just 29
yards on 16 carries. As good as David Wilson is, he is not going to find the
running room that he found against Georgia Tech and other previous opponents.

Special Teams

If this game is close, then field position will be a determining factor in
who wins.


Special Teams Comparison

Category

VT Rank

UNC Rank
Net Punting 117 74
KO Return 103 14
KO Return Def. 82 21
Punt Return 34 108
Punt Return Def. 15 7

Average

70.2

44.8

Like it or not, Virginia Tech just isn’t very good on special teams this
year, and we’re not just talking about punting. David Wilson hasn’t broken
anything on his kickoff returns, and if David Wilson isn’t breaking big runs,
then somebody isn’t blocking. Also, Tech’s kickoff coverage team has been well
below average.

T.J. Thorpe (6-0, 190, Fr.) averages 28 yards per kickoff return thanks in
part to a 100 yard return for a touchdown. The Tar Heels will also use starting
cornerback Charles Brown, as well as Sean Tapley (6-1, 185, r-Fr.), and they are
both capable return men as well. UNC ranks 14th in the nation in kickoff return
yards, so Justin Myer needs to boot his kickoffs through the end zone in this
game.

Charles Brown serves as the punt returner, and he has only gained a total of
23 yards on 10 returns. 18 of those yards came on one return, so for the most
part the North Carolina punt return game has been easy to bottle up this year.

Thomas Hibbard (5-10, 185, Fr.) is a true freshman walk-on who has been
pressed into service, much like Virginia Tech’s Michael Branthover. Hibbard has
talent, but he’s inconsistent like Branthover. He has boomed three beyond 50
yards, but averages just 38.8 per punt on the season. The Branthover vs. Hibbard
matchup will be one of the more interesting ones of the game.

Thomas Moore (5-10, 190, r-Fr.) is also a young walk-on who has been pressed
into service. Casey Barth is out for the season with an injury, and in his place
Moore has gone 2-of-4 with a long of 32 yards. He’s made just one of his three
attempts from beyond 30 yards, so he has to be considered a huge question mark
heading into Lane Stadium.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to like about North Carolina as a football team. They have a
big-time receiver who will play in the NFL, a quarterback who is completing over
70% of his passes, a 1,000 yard rusher at tailback, a big, physical offensive
line, and one of the best and most athletic front sevens in the country. They
are a scary football team in terms of talent, and they are intimidating when
they get off the bus.

But there is something missing. When you’ve got that many good football
players at so many different positions, guys who are going to be in the NFL one
day, you should be better than 6-4 overall and 2-4 in the ACC. Even in some of
their wins, UNC hasn’t played well. They only beat Louisville 14-7 despite the
Cardinals playing a true freshman quarterback, and overall the Tar Heels have
lost three of their last four games.

I can’t really put my finger on the problem. UNC is very average across the
board statistically, yet if Quinton Coples, Zach Brown, Dwight Jones and Giovani
Bernard are all playing on the same team, with a lot of good players around
them, they should be better than 6-4. Of course, the Tar Heels have an interim
head coach in Everett Withers, but some would argue that UNC is better off
without Butch Davis making the game day decisions.

Despite their record, and despite the fact that they have lost three of their
last four, UNC is quite capable of beating Virginia Tech. When they knocked off
the Hokies in Blacksburg two years ago, the Tar Heels were winless in the ACC
coming into the game.

That being said, that 2009 UNC defense was more loaded than this one. I like
the front seven a lot, but if you get by it, you are going to have an advantage
against the secondary. I believe the Tech offensive line is in for their most
significant challenge of the season, but at the same time, the Tar Heels are
facing the best offensive line, best running back, most experienced receivers
and most physically gifted quarterback that they’ve been up against all year.

I think Virginia Tech has a lot of confidence coming off their big win at
Georgia Tech, and I’m not sure about the psyche of the UNC players after losing
so much recently. I know that in the back of their minds Tech players know that
they can clinch the Coastal Division on Thursday night, because it’s unlikely
that UVA will beat Florida State on Saturday.

On the other hand, UNC had an extra week to prepare for this game, and that
is very concerning. If you give talented players extra time to prepare, they are
going to be even more dangerous.

That said, I think the Hokies get it done on Thursday.

Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, UNC 20

Will Stewart’s Take: "The Team That John Blake and Butch Davis
Built" continues to be physically formidable. This has only mattered once
to the Hokies, in 2009, when the physically superior Tar Heels bottled the
Hokies up, wore them down, and took advantage of a key Ryan Williams fumble to
win 20-17 in Lane Stadium.

That was then, this is now. That 2009 Tech team was coming off a demoralizing
loss to Georgia Tech, a game that knocked the #4-ranked Hokies out of the
national championship picture and put them behind the eight ball in the ACC
Coastal. The Hokies looked lost in the follow-up game against UNC and let it
slip away.

The 2009 UNC Tar Heels were very similar to this year’s edition: a physically
impressive team with a middling record (4-3 and 0-3, compared to 6-4 and 2-4
this season). The 2009 game taught us that the Heels had enough talent and
physicality to beat the Hokies, if things fell right for UNC and VT didn’t play
their best.

That’s still true, but little else is the same about this year’s matchup.
Unlike 2009, the Hokies are on a roll and are coming off the most invigorating
win of their season. Unlike 2009, the ACC Coastal title is coming into view,
instead of slipping away. Unlike 2009, the Hokies are peaking as UNC comes to
town, not still trying to find their way.

UNC presents a big challenge, but I’m done picking the Hokies to lose any
more games this year, so here are the reasons Virginia Tech will win:

1.) The Hokies will win the turnover battle. Logan Thomas has 10 touchdown
passes and just two interceptions in his last five games, including a 9-0 ratio
against teams not named Duke.

2.) Tech will pressure Bryn Renner into making mistakes. As Chris noted, the
Hokies rush the QB well (#5 in the nation in sacks), and UNC doesn’t protect him
well (#84 in sacks allowed). On the other side, VT is #16 in the nation in sacks
allowed, which should allow them to hold up fairly well against UNC’s #20
ranking in sacks.

3.) The Hokies will complete some passes downfield against the Tar Heel DBs.
I can’t think of a wide receiver better suited to burn UNC’s defensive backfield
than Danny Coale. On the other side of the ball, the Tar Heels got in trouble
every time they tried to go deep against the Hokies last year, and I look for
the same to hold true this year. I’m not saying the Hokies will be bullet proof,
because UNC has some big, talented WRs and Jayron Hosley has struggled this year
at times, but this is a battle VT will win.

4.) The 2011 Hokie offense is more physical than the 2009 Hokie offense. If
I’m the Virginia Tech coaching staff, I’m running film this week and reminding
my team of how they were physically whipped at the line of scrimmage two years
ago. At home. To a team wearing baby blue. It was embarrassing.

5.) It’s November, and the ACC Coastal Division crown is in sight. The Hokies
lost the ACC Coastal in 2006 and 2009, yes, but in each case they lost it before
they ever got out of the month of October. It’s November now, where the Hokies
have won 25 of their last 27 games, and they can smell blood in the water. It’s
time to close out.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, North Carolina 13

Sorry, no reverse mojo this week. The Hokies will have to do it themselves,
without voodoo.

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