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- Time: 12:30
- TV: The ACC Network
With their backs planted firmly against the proverbial wall, Virginia Tech heads to Chapel Hill to take on a UNC team that has been dominant in their last 10 quarters of football.
UNC is 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the ACC. They are ineligible for postseason play, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take on a spoilers role in league play. That’s what they’ll try to do when Virginia Tech comes to town.
The Tar Heels are coached by Larry Fedora, who is in his first year. Fedora is bringing a new style and new energy to the program. In time, I think UNC fans will realize he’s a much better coach than the one they finally had to run out of town.
The North Carolina Offense
The UNC coaching staff has done an outstanding job installing a brand new offense to a very young group of players. The Tar Heel running backs are all sophomores or freshmen, they start a true freshman at wide receiver, and a couple of other sophomore receivers play a lot. They also start a sophomore at tight end, and of course junior quarterback Bryn Renner (6-3, 215, r-Jr.) is learning spread, up-tempo offense for the first time.
Despite the youth, and an injury that kept 1,000 yard rusher Giovani Bernard out of the starting lineup for a couple of games, the Tar Heels are averaging 477.4 yards per game. They have three running backs who are all very productive, and Renner will be on an NFL roster at some point. Larry Fedora and the offensive coaches have done an outstanding job teaching this offense to a new group of players in a short amount of time.
Of course, it helps to have good players. Butch Davis couldn’t coach, but he always put together a coaching staff who could recruit (for better or for worse). Obviously it’s Bryn Renner who makes this offense go. He is completing 63.8% of his passes this season while averaging 284.4 yards per game through the air. Renner has thrown 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions, and overall I view him as one of the nation’s better quarterbacks.
Renner has been having success despite not having an experienced group of wide receivers around him. Erik Highsmith (6-3, 190, Sr.) has been a big part of the passing game since he was a true freshman, and he currently leads the Heels with 23 catches for 243 yards. However, after Highsmith, there isn’t much experience at wideout.
Quinshad Davis (6-4, 185, Fr.): 15 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns as a true freshman.
Sean Tapley (6-1, 185, r-So.): 12 catches for 238 yards and 3 TD’s in his first extensive playing time.
Mark McNeil (6-4, 205, r-So.): A player who has split his time with the UNC Lacrosse team.
Despite all of that inexperience, the Tar Heels have been able to put together a very dangerous passing game. An effective rushing game makes them even more dangerous.
Giovani Bernard (5-10, 205, r-So.) is one of the most underrated backs in the country. He is very effective as a downhill runner, and he is also an outstanding receiver out of the backfield. He missed two games with an injury this year – both of UNC’s losses – but he still has 213 yards on just 29 carries, to go along with 12 receptions for 112 yards. Look for Bernard to be in the lineup against the Hokies, and he should be as close to 100% as he has been since week one.
Bernard isn’t the only weapon out of the backfield that UNC will employ. They also have A.J. Blue (6-2, 225, r-So.) and Romar Morris (5-10, 180, r-Fr.). Blue is a big, physical back who was originally recruited to play quarterback. He has 257 yards on 50 carries (5.1 ypc) on the season, while Morris has 235 yards on 44 carries (5.3 ypc). Morris is also a dynamic pass catcher out of the back field. He caught five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns against Louisville.
Overall, UNC has enough playmakers at wide receiver and tailback to pressure a defense everywhere on the field. They are a very dangerous offense, and they are made even more dangerous because of the experience of their offensive line.
LT James Hurst (6-7, 290, Jr.): 5-star recruit out of high school, starter since he was a true freshman
LG Jonathan Cooper (6-3, 295, r-Sr.): 2nd team All-ACC, starter since he was a r-freshman
C Russell Bodine (6-4, 305, r-So.): First year starter, played over 300 snaps in 2011
RG Travis Bond (6-7, 330, Sr.): Starter last season, playing rotation since he was a true freshman
RT Brennan Williams (6-7, 310, Sr.): Starter last season
That’s a very experienced offensive line. The left side is the best, with two All-ACC players, and I think Russell Bodine (whom Virginia Tech recruited heavily) has a very bright future up front for the Tar Heels. This was an offensive line that was built to sustain the power running game of Butch Davis, but they’ve done a good job adapting to the new spread offense.
Want proof? UNC has racked up 400+ yards of total offense in every game they’ve played, despite the youth at tailback and receiver, and despite switching to a new offense. That’s a sure sign that the offensive line is playing good football. Here’s a look at their overall offensive numbers:
Rushing offense: #53
Passing offense: #23
Total offense: #32
Scoring offense: #12
Pass Efficiency: #21
Sacks allowed: #10
Third Down %: #27
North Carolina is more balanced offensively than anyone the Hokies have faced thus far, and they’ve done it despite not having their star tailback for a couple of games. This offense is legit, and the Tech defense will have its hands full on Saturday.
The North Carolina Defense
The UNC offense is not the only unit making a schematic change. The UNC defense has multiple fronts, and they can show a 4-2-5 look, an eight-man front, as well as 3-3-5 looks. It has paid off so far, at least statistically.
Rushing defense: #16
Passing defense: #33
Total defense: #16
Scoring defense: #19
Pass Efficiency defense: #25
Third downs %: #30
Those are impressive defensive numbers, and it looks to me that the Tar Heels are the most balanced team – offensively and defensively – on Tech’s schedule so far.
North Carolina’s defensive success is predicated on confusing the offensive line with multiple fronts, as well as getting penetration. The Tar Heels are very talented on defense, particularly up front on the defensive line. In fact, one player in particular will present arguably the worst matchup Virginia Tech will face up front all season: Sylvester Williams (6-3, 305, Sr.).
Williams has been a dominant football player up front his year, recording seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in five games. He lives in the backfield, and he’ll be facing a Virginia Tech interior offensive line that has struggled to block everyone they’ve faced. Caleb Farris has played well this year, and Tech has been getting him reps with the #1 offense at right guard this week, so hopefully he’s the answer. Otherwise, look for a lot of pressure up the middle, right in Logan Thomas’ face.
The rest of the defensive line is good as well. Kareem Martin (6-6, 260, Jr.) has seven tackles for loss and two sacks from his defensive end position. Virginia Tech recruited him heavily out of high school – in fact, he came down to Tech and UNC. Martin could be another Tar Heel defender with an NFL future. Tim Jackson (6-5, 270, Jr.) is the starter at nose tackle, and the former defensive end is very quick off the ball and can make plays in the backfield.
Dion Guy (6-4, 245, Sr.) has played both defensive end and linebacker in his career, and that made him an ideal candidate to man UNC’s new hybrid position of Bandit. It’s a combination defensive end/outside linebacker, and whether or not UNC is in a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5 depends on where the bandit lines up. Guy isn’t particularly experienced as a defensive player, having played mostly special teams his first three years.
The Tar Heels get good play from their linebackers. Kevin Reddick (6-3, 240, Sr.) mans the middle of the UNC defense, having started since his true freshman season. He’s one of the nation’s best inside linebackers, and the presence of both Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams will make life very difficult for Tech’s interior line.
At the weakside linebacker spot, UNC starts Tommy Heffernan (6-1, 215, r-So.), who is a former walk-on. He has 26 tackles, with three TFL and a sack on the season. Former Virginia Tech recruiting target Travis Hughes (6-2, 230, So.) should also see action behind Heffernan. He has 16 tackles and 1.5 TFL on the year. On the whole, UNC has a very good front seven, as you can tell from their national ranking in tackles for loss and sacks.
The secondary is the weakness of UNC. The Tar Heels have four r-freshmen and one true freshman in the two-deep in the secondary, including one r-freshman starter. UNC starts five defensive backs, and they always have the option to roll one of them up in an eight-man front look.
Jabari Price (6-0, 195, Jr.): Price is a cornerback who started some games as a true freshman two years ago. He’s a good player up around the line of scrimmage, with three TFL and a sack on the season.
Tim Scott (5-11, 190, So.): Scott, a Virginia native whom VT did not offer, started as a true freshman last season for the Tar Heels. He leads the team with two interceptions so far this season.
Tre Boston (6-1, 190, Jr.): Boston started at safety last season, and started four games as a true freshman cornerback in 2010. He is UNC’s most experienced safety.
Sam Smiley (5-11, 185, r-Fr.) and Darien Rankin (5-11, 190, r-Fr.): Both of these young players could see action at strong safety for the Hokies. Obviously any freshman in the secondary has to be considered the weak link of the defense.
Gene Robinson (5-11, 200, Sr.): Robinson plays UNC’s special Ram position. He has a lot of responsibility. He can line up as a traditional safety, as a nickelback, as an outside linebacker, or even as a defensive end at times. Ram is probably a blast to play, once you pick up it up mentally.
Because they feature not one – but two – hybrid positions, the UNC defense has a lot of different alignment options. They can pose a lot of problems for offenses, and I think they present a substantial challenge for Virginia Tech for a couple of reasons:
1: Sylvester Williams vs. Tech’s interior offensive line. Enough said.
2: The Tech offense typically starts slow, many times because the defense “was giving us looks that we haven’t seen on film”. Well, UNC can probably show more looks defensively than any team on Tech’s schedule. I have no doubt that they’ll do some things that they haven’t done before on Saturday, and it will be up to Tech’s staff to recognize it and adjust to it quickly.
A quick look at UNC’s special teams stats:
Net punting: #22
Punt returns: #19
Kickoff returns: #46
Punt return yardage defense: #7
KO return yardage defense: #27
Casey Barth is an outstanding kicker for UNC. He has connected on 7-of-8 field goal attempts this year, with a long of 41 yards. His brother Connor is a starting kicker in the NFL. Punter Tommy Hibbard has only punted 16 times through five games, but four of them have gone for 50+ yards, and only six of them have been returned (for a total of 5 yards).
The Tar Heels like to use Giovani Bernard as their punt returner, and he’s dangerous. He has one return for 70 yards and a touchdown this season, so Alonzo Tweedy and the rest of Tech’s punt coverage team will have to be on top of their game.
Wide receiver Sean Tapley and running back Romar Morris are the kickoff returners, and though neither has broken anything longer than 33 yards on the season, they are both dangerous. Morris in particular is very explosive in the open field, similar to R.D. Abernathy of Cincinnati.
Special teams look like a pretty even matchup in this game.
In case you were keeping up, the worst statistic on UNC’s resume is their rushing offense, which ranks #53 nationally. In 10 of the 17 stats kept on this page by the NCAA, Virginia Tech ranks worse than UNC’s worst ranking. North Carolina is the best team Virginia Tech has faced athletically and statistically.
The Tar Heels are better than their 3-2 record indicate. Judging from what I’ve seen this season, the Tar Heels should not have lost to Wake Forest, and if they played a full four quarters against Louisville, they probably would have won that game.
But I do know that UNC is playing their best football right now. After falling down 36-7 at halftime to Lousville, UNC outscored the Cardinals 27-3 in the second half, and just barely fell short of a huge comeback after running out of downs inside the Louisville 10. Since the beginning of the second half of that game, the Tar Heels have outscored their opponents 120-9.
This is obviously a confident football team. Anyone that crushes their opponents like UNC has been doing since the start of that second half would be confident. This is also the biggest game of the season for the Tar Heels. Since they are ineligible for a bowl game, they are treating this game as their bowl. It’s White Out in Chapel Hill, and UNC will be wearing white helmets for the first time since the 1960s. Conversely, Tech will be wearing all-maroon.
These two teams have the same record, and Tech has a better mark in ACC play. But anyone who has actually watched these two teams play will tell you that the Tar Heels look better than the Hokies. Their defense has improved rapidly, and the offense has had no trouble picking up the new spread system. There’s no doubt that UNC should be the favorite in this football game.
On the other hand, Tech has never lost a road game in the state of North Carolina, and this is typically the time of year when the offense simplifies things and starts playing better. Frank Beamer himself said on Monday night that it’s time to start getting back to the basics. The Hokies are a wounded team right now, but offensively they showed major signs of life in the second half last week. They are also back in their element: ACC play. Based on the past, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Tech get it together and win this football game.
But this doesn’t seem like the past, does it? In the past, the Hokies have had the experience in the secondary, and they don’t this year. What they do have is receivers who don’t put much effort into blocking and who don’t run their routes hard if they aren’t the primary receivers. What they have is a quarterback who, quite frankly, is probably the worst in the ACC right now. What they have, in my opinion, is an offense that doesn’t have much confidence in their coaches or the system they play in.
Defensively, I think the Hokies played their butts off up front against Cincinnati, and linebackers Bruce Taylor and Jack Tyler are playing very good football right now. However, they lack the swarm we are used to, and they just don’t have the bodies in the secondary to combat this UNC passing attack. I also wonder if there’s not a confidence problem with the whole team, not because of the fact that they’ve lost two games, but because of how they lost two games. To steal a term from The U, this team seems to lack the “swag” right now.
I think they are capable of getting it back, but until I see it, I can’t pick them to beat a team with the talent of North Carolina. I think the Tar Heels will be in control of this one from the very beginning, and the outcome will never be in doubt.
Chris Coleman’s Prediction: UNC 30, Virginia Tech 17
Will Stewart’s Take: Five games in, I’ll admit that my confidence in the Hokies is shot. Not for the reasons you might think, either. Put aside the youth, the slow starts on offense, the difficulties in the defensive backfield … the biggest reason my confidence in the Hokies is gone is because of the lack of fire they’re showing this season.
Tech was fired up for the Georgia Tech game on Labor Day night, but since then, they’ve been flat. Even during last Saturday’s game against Cincinnati, with so much improvement needed on both sides of the ball, the TV announcers kept remarking on how much more energy the Bearcats had on their sideline than the Hokies did.
Now, you march that team into Chapel Hill, which isn’t exactly a tough place to play, but it will be against a team that’s looking to prove itself. UNC wants to make a statement, just like Pittsburgh did, and just like Cincinnati did. And the Tar Heels are perhaps more equipped to make that statement than either of those other teams appeared to be, going in.
This is a bad situation, and a bad matchup.
The best hope for the Hokies is that they finally respond to the lackluster play and second-guessing by getting fired up, that they finally show up mentally for a game.
Another hope is that the annual simplification of the offense, which Frank Beamer indicated on Tech Talk Live this past Monday was underway, will bear fruit in this game. The Hokies can’t risk another slow start, because UNC appears to have the firepower to put on the pressure offensively.
Can Virginia Tech win this game? Sure. Will they? Maybe. But at this point, they have shown me more in the last four games to indicate that they’re not going to win, not unless they turn something around. If they do, I’ll show more confidence in them in future picks, but not this time around, not yet.
Will Stewart’s Prediction: UNC 30, Virginia Tech 20