- Virginia Tech-North Carolina rostercard: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Chapel Hill Weather: Click here
- Gameday information: Click here
#25 Virginia Tech will face one of its biggest tests this season when the Hokies travel to North Carolina to take on the #17 Tar Heels this weekend.
UNC is coming off back-to-back gut-wrenching victories over Pitt and Florida State. Both games were decided at the end and featured improbable Tar Heel comebacks. UNC trailed 36-23 against Pitt but rallied late, converting three fourth downs on their final drive before scoring the game-winning touchdown with two seconds remaining.
Many of you saw the UNC-Florida State game. The Tar Heels made a lot of mistakes, gave up the lead late, but then won it on a 54-yard yard field goal as time expired, prompting the epic Tomahawk Chop celebration. It wasn’t a good day to be a Florida State fan.
As a result of those two victories, this week’s UNC-Virginia Tech game just got a lot bigger. There are major Coastal Division implications, and the winner will have an early leg up in the division race, along with Miami. Head-to-head matchups mean a lot in conference races, and the Hokies will have a chance to pick up a big one on Saturday.
Here is the Tale of the Tape, brought to you by OXVT.
When you consider all those statistics, the Hokies have a slight edge. However, the Tar Heels are very talented offensively, and they knocked off Florida State in Tallahassee last week. They are an extremely confident team and deserving of their #17 ranking.
Unleash the Fury, Mitch
North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky (6-3, 225, Jr.) has steadily improved over his three years on the field.
2014: 42-of-78 (53.8%), 459 yards, 5 TDs, 4 INTs
2015: 40-of-47 (85.1%), 555 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs
2016: 133-of-175 (76%), 1711 yards, 13 TDs, 0 INTs
Trubisky has not thrown an interception since he was a r-freshman. That pick-six that he threw to Kendall Fuller in Kenan Stadium in 2014 represents the next-to-last interception of his career. If you combine his stats from the last two seasons, you’d be challenged to find a better quarterback in all of college football. In those two seasons, he is 173-of-222 (77.9%) for 2,266 yards, 19 touchdowns and no interceptions. It doesn’t get any better than that.
NFL scouts are starting to take note of Trubisky, and some believe he could be a first round pick. His biggest challenge of the season will likely come this Saturday against Virginia Tech’s pass defense. It will be the best pass defense he has faced this year. Here are the passing defense efficiency rankings of each opponent UNC has played, compared with Virginia Tech…
Florida State: #115
Virginia Tech: #8
Obviously that’s a big difference. East Carolina quarterback Phillip Nelson entered the Virginia Tech game completing 78.9% of his passes, but went just 17-of-34 (50%) against the Hokies. On the other hand, the Tar Heels will bring more overall talent and more balance to the table than East Carolina did. Mitch Trubisky has a lot of skilled players surrounding him on offense. More on those guys later.
The Experience Factor
As good as Trubisky is, he’s actually one of the least experienced players on UNC’s offense in terms of career starts.
RT Jon Heck: 43 starts
LG Caleb Peterson: 42 starts
C Lucas Crowley: 32 starts
WR Ryan Switzer: 25 starts
RB Elijah Hood: 20 starts
WR Bug Howard: 17 starts
RB TJ Logan: 17 starts
WR Mack Hollins: 16 starts
LT Bentley Spain: 15 starts
Those guys have a ton of experience, and it’s really helped the offense put up great numbers this season.
S&P+ offense: #7
Finishing Drives: #25
Rushing S&P: #21
Rushing Success Rate: #12
Passing S&P: #32
Passing Success Rate: #7
There are more stats I could throw in there, but you get the point. The Tar Heels are very experienced offensively, and Larry Fedora is an excellent offensive coach. The result is a lot of yards and a lot of points.
Excellent Skill Position Talent
North Carolina is a balanced offense, and they have very good talent at both wide receiver and running back. The Tar Heels use two running backs, and both players have been effective this season.
Elijah Hood (6-0, 230, Jr.): 67 carries, 338 yards, 5.0 ypc, 4 TDs
TJ Logan (5-10, 190, Sr.): 36 carries, 258 yards, 7.2 ypc, 5 TDs
Larry Fedora often gets criticized for not running the ball enough, and at times that is a very fair criticism. Hood and Logan are both very good players, and they probably need to touch the ball more. On the other hand, with a quarterback who is completing nearly 80% of his passes, it can be tough to take the ball out of his hands. Still, when UNC does run the ball, they have been very efficient. The lone exception is the Pitt game when they managed only 18 yards on the ground.
In the passing game, the Tar Heels rely on four different receivers, plus their running backs. Ryan Switzer (5-10, 185, Sr.) is by far the top receiver, while Bug Howard (6-5, 220, Sr.), Mack Hollins (6-4, 215, Sr.) and Austin Proehl (5-10, 175, Jr.) all play a role as well. Here’s how the receiving numbers break down…
Switzer: 47 catches, 587 yards, 2 TDs
Proehl: 19 catches, 269 yards, 1 TD
Bug Howard: 18 catches, 261 yards, 3 TDs
Mack Hollins: 13 catches, 252 yards, 4 TDs
Running backs Elijah Hood and TJ Logan have combined for 21 receptions.
Fedora might not run the ball as much as most teams, but his passing game can be considered an extension of the running game. The UNC offense employs a lot of quick hitters and screen plays, which in turn set up the potential for longer plays down the field. Virginia Tech will need to tackle well in space against UNC to prevent the big play on the edge, and it’s important to stop the running game and force the Tar Heels to be one-dimensional. We say that every week, but it’s especially true this week.
The UNC Defense: Bend But Don’t Break
Many of you remember what Boston College used to do defensively against the Hokies. They would play umbrella coverage with two deep safeties and try to force Tech to drive the length of the field by taking away chances at big plays.
That’s essentially what UNC tries to do defensively. They do it with more overall talent than the Eagles, though BC’s defense is much more efficient. The UNC defense is young and improving, and they played their best three quarters of football against Florida State last week. The Seminoles scored 14 points through the first three quarters, and though they were much more successful in the last quarter, it was still a step forward for Gene Chizik’s group.
Nevertheless, the stats don’t paint a favorable picture for the Tar Heels…
Rushing Defense: #116
Passing Defense: #59
Total Defense: #105
Scoring Defense: #90
Tackles for Loss: #69
Third Downs: #106
You can’t cover up those stats. The UNC defense has been ineffective this year, no matter how you slice it. They’ve been able to prevent big plays, but opposing offenses have gashed them on the ground. We can expect to see a heavy dose of running plays from the Hokies on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see what Justin Fuente and Brad Cornselsen can come up with after a bye week.
North Carolina’s starting defensive front will be one of the biggest the Hokies face this season…
DE Tyler Powell (6-4, 275, Jr.)
DT Nazair Jones (6-5, 310, Jr.)
DT Jalen Dalton (6-6, 300, So.)
DE Mikey Bart (6-3, 270, Sr.)
Powell went to Cosby High School in Midlothian, VA. He can play either end or tackle. The Hokies did not offer Powell a scholarship out of high school. Jones and Bart are the most experienced members of the defensive line, and Bart led the team in sacks last season with 6.5. Dalton is probably the most talented player up front, but he’s still a very young player who is learning how to play. UNC won a tight recruiting battle over the Hokies for Dalton two years ago.
A big issue with UNC’s defense in the front seven is the lack of playmakers. Here’s a comparison in tackles for loss between the Hokies and the Tar Heels…
UNC: 28 in five games
VT: 33 in four games
The Tar Heel struggled to make plays in the backfield, and that leads to more third and manageable situations for the opposing offense.
The Carolina secondary is the most experienced part of their defense…
FS Dominique Green (5-11, 190, Sr.): 31 starts
CB Dez Lawrence (6-1, 185, Sr.): 31 starts
SS Donnie Miles (5-11, 205, Jr.): 25 starts
CB MJ Stewart (5-11, 200, Jr.): 17 starts
CB Patrice Rene (6-2, 200, Fr.): 3 starts
Former Virginia Tech recruiting target MJ Stewart is UNC’s best defensive back. He’ll play both nickel and cornerback for the Tar Heels. Patrice Rene will also see a lot of time, and the true freshman has proved to be very susceptible to pass interference penalties in the UNC games that I’ve seen. He could be a major target of the Virginia Tech offense.
UNC has the ever-dangerous Ryan Switzer returning punts. Switzer has seven career punt returns for touchdowns, which is just one away from the NCAA record held by Texas Tech’s Wes Welker and Oklahoma’s Antonio Perkins. He’s capable of breaking one at any point, so Tech’s punt coverage team will have to continue to be superb. Opponents have returned five punts for just 10 yards against the Hokies this season.
TJ Logan is very dangerous on kickoff returns as well. He has returned one for a touchdown this year already, and he’s averaging 27.2 yards per return. 24 of Joey Slye’s 29 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks this season. He needs to keep putting them through the end zone to keep the ball out of Logan’s hands.
Here’s the overall special teams comparison between each team. First, the Hokies…
Special teams S&P+: #32
FG Value: #79
Punt Success Rate: #24
Kickoff Success Rate: #1
Punt Return Success Rate: #78
Kick Return Success Rate: #36
And now for the Tar Heels…
Special teams S&P+: #20
FG Value: #61
Punt Success Rate: #4
Kickoff Success Rate: #16
Punt Return Success Rate: #19
Kick Return Success Rate: #86
Advanced stats on special teams can be a little off this early in the season (for example, Tech’s punt return and kick return rankings don’t make much sense), but overall this appears to be a pretty even battle.
Both teams appear relatively even on special teams. UNC has a slight advantage offensively. The Hokies have a big advantage defensively. That all points to a Tech win in a close game, but other things will factor in as well such as field position, turnovers and third down rates.
Neither quarterback throws interceptions. If one does throw a pick on Saturday, that could potentially give his opponent a big advantage. Tech lost nine fumbles (out of 10) in their first two games, but haven’t dropped the football since. Maybe the Hokies have an issue with fumbling, or maybe those first two weekends were just a fluke. It’s too early to tell.
As far as third downs go, here’s what the battle looks like…
Offense: UNC #12, VT #35
Defense: UNC #106, VT #4
While UNC is a bit better on third down offensively than the Hokies, Tech is much better defensively. If the Hokies can win the third down battle on Saturday, I think they’ll win the game. Field position can also play a critical role, but it can be very difficult to predict.
Virginia Tech hasn’t necessarily played well after a bye week in past seasons. However, I really like the game planning abilities of Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen, and Memphis generally played good football under Fuente after the bye. The extra week could be an advantage for Tech in this game.
Since things like turnovers and field position can be hard to predict, I’m going with the Hokies in this one. UNC’s offense is probably slightly better than Tech’s, but the Hokies have a huge defensive advantage. I also think the Tar Heels are due to lose a game after their last two nail-biters that they could easily have lost. I’m picking Tech in a close game.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, UNC 27
Will Stewart’s Take: The Hokies don’t have a problem playing in Kenan Stadium. Virginia Tech is 5-1 against UNC in Chapel Hill since joining the ACC in 2004. The Hokies actually have a worse record against the Heels in Blacksburg (4-2). So forget about the fact that this is a road game; I don’t think that affects the outcome much, if at all.
The issue is UNC’s offense, and how much the Hokies can slow it down. The Heels blew up on Virginia Tech for 48 points in 2012, the only time North Carolina has beaten Tech in Chapel Hill (48-34) since 2004, and the only time they have gone over 30 against the Hokies in that stretch. UNC scored 30 on the Hokies last year, but that was in overtime. So it’s not as if the Heels usually hang a lot of points on Tech.
Virginia Tech’s defense is better so far than it has been in the last couple of years, especially last year, so that’s good news, right? That is true, but I think Mitch Trubisky is a better quarterback than previous signal caller Marquise Williams. Williams was a threat to run, but he only threw for four touchdowns in three games against the Hokies, and in the last two games, he only completed 51% of his passes against VT. He was hot and cold; Trubisky is more consistent, more accurate and more productive … but against other teams so far, not the Hokies.
The other issue is that the Heels have an experienced team that has been running Larry Fedora’s system since 2012, while the Hokies only have four games under their Justin Fuente belt. UNC knows how to win tight games, as they proved against Pittsburgh and FSU. Since 2014, the Heels are 9-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. We may get to find out how Justin Fuente and staff operate in a game that is close late.
Putting Hurricane Matthew issues aside and not getting wrapped up in what playing on a wet field will do to both teams’ efficiency, this appears to be a game where the Hokie offense is going to have to produce in order for the Hokies to win. I still think the Hokies can keep the Heels to 35 points, and history tells us probably less than that. So if the Hokies can put 35 or more on the board, they should win. It sounds silly saying that, because most offenses, if they put 35 points up, will be on the winning side.
Georgia (33 points), Pittsburgh (36 points), and FSU (35 points) all put up numbers in that range against UNC. Even Illinois (23) and JMU (28) had decent days against the Heels’ D.
I’m trying to get used to the idea of a high-scoring shootout, but this one could wind up being that. Again, putting hurricane issues aside, and knowing that special teams and turnovers can always throw results out of whack, I’m going to call this one for the good guys, in a close one.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 35, North Carolina 31
As crazy as it sounds when predicting a score like that, Bud Foster’s defense will be the difference.