Virginia Tech-North Carolina Preview: Hokies Look to Keep Rolling

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After a much-needed bye week, No. 14 Virginia Tech returns to action against North Carolina in Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoon. It’s Homecoming in Lane Stadium, and the Hokies will be facing a struggling Tar Heel team that is 1-6 overall and 0-4 in the ACC.

DriveFor25_shield-320pxUNC beat Old Dominion 53-23 back in September, but the rest of their schedule has been a major struggle.

California: 35-30 home loss
Louisville: 47-35 home loss
ODU: 53-23 road win
Duke: 27-17 home loss
Georgia Tech: 33-7 road loss
Notre Dame: 33-10 home loss
Virginia: 20-14 home loss

Not only have the Tar Heels been struggling, but they actually seem to be getting worse as the season goes along. With one more loss, they will be disqualified from bowl consideration for the first time since 2012. That year, UNC went 8-4, but was banned from the postseason because of NCAA violations. The last time a UNC team finished the regular season with a losing record was 2007, when they went 4-8 in Butch Davis’s first season as head coach.

UNC’s struggles can be attributed to three things…

  1. A large number of injuries
  2. Struggling quarterbacks
  3. A defense that has generally been subpar under head coach Larry Fedora

With their quarterback play this year, UNC needed to stay healthy and they needed their defense to improve. They got neither, and they are paying the price.

Tracking UNC’s injuries has been very difficult, but according to this article that was written last Thursday, the Tar Heels have lost 16 players for the season due to injury. Nine starters were out on Saturday against UVA. That would damage the hopes of even the most talented teams.

Justin Fuente, Bud Foster
The 2016 win over UNC meant a lot to the normally stoic Justin Fuente.

Offensive Struggles

Larry Fedora’s North Carolina offenses have always been good and efficient, but that isn’t the case this season. The Tar Heels are a sub-par offensive team. Let’s take a look at the numbers, courtesy of Football Study Hall.

S&P+ Offense: No. 82
Success Rate: No. 87
Explosiveness: No. 90
Finishing Drives: No. 60
Rushing S&P: No. 49
Rushing Success Rate: No. 67
Rushing Explosiveness: No. 63
Power Success Rate: No. 33
Passing S&P+: No. 53
Passing Success Rate: No. 96
Passing Explosiveness: No. 95

Carolina is a very poor passing team and a mediocre running team. Fedora loves to throw the football around the field, and he probably isn’t comfortable leaning on the running game. Nevertheless, he should probably do it more, as his quarterbacks have been below average throwing the ball. But, they do have running ability. UNC’s running backs have also been productive.

Overall, UNC is a very good matchup for a Tech defense that ranks No. 17 in the S&P+ ratings.

Let’s take a closer look at UNC’s offensive struggles.

Courtesy of OXVT

Lack of a Quarterback

Fedora has had some very good quarterbacks during his tenure at North Carolina. Bryn Renner was an experienced player when Fedora took over, and he played well in 2012. Marquise Williams put up some big numbers between 2013 and 2015. Last year, Mitchell Trubisky was the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft and is the current starter for the Chicago Bears.

Williams and Trubisky had the luxury of sitting behind an experienced quarterback. Neither player was forced to start before he was ready. That hasn’t been the case with Chazz Surratt (6-foot-3, 215 pounds, r-Fr.). Trubisky left for the NFL after just one season as UNC’s starter, and Surratt has been forced to take the reins for the majority of the season. He has completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,167 yards, with six touchdowns and three interceptions, while also rushing for 179 yards and four touchdowns.

Surratt really struggled in recent losses to Duke, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame…

Duke: 17-of-32, 259 yards, one touchdown, one interception
GT: 18-of-30, 141 yards, one interception
ND: 19-of-42, 179 yards, one touchdown, one interception

It would be accurate to say that from a statistical standpoint, Surratt has gotten worse as the season has gone along. He did not play in UNC’s loss to Virginia this past weekend, with part of the reason being that he was recovering from an illness. His replacement was Brandon Harris (6-foot-3, 220), a graduate transfer from LSU with plenty of starting experience. Harris sounds ideal on paper, but the fact remains that Harris was a subpar quarterback for the Tigers, and his inability to grasp the starting position in Chapel Hill has forced Surratt to be thrown into the fire before he’s ready.

Harris started the season opener against Cal, and started again this past week against UVA. His season numbers are extremely poor: 31-of-60 (51.7 percent), 322 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. He has only completed 53.6 percent of his 406 career pass attempts. It’s hard to win football games with numbers like that.

At this point it is unclear which quarterback will get the start against Virginia Tech this weekend. It is a “Harris OR Surratt” situation on the depth chart, with Harris’s name listed first. He has much more experience than Surratt, but he also seems to be much more likely to turn the ball over. He threw three interceptions in UNC’s 20-14 loss to UVA last week.

Larry Fedora
Larry Fedora (left) would rather throw the football, but that might not be a good idea this season. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Relying on the Running Game Makes Sense, But…

Fedora isn’t known for his patience with the running game. Just ask former UNC tailback Elijah Hood. However, Fedora’s best bet this season is to stick with the run, and try to protect the football and shorten the game. He has a pair of solid tailbacks, and whichever quarterback he uses is a capable runner.

Jordan Brown (5-foot-10, 195 pounds, So.): 75 carries, 327 yards, 4.4 ypc, three touchdowns
Michael Carter (5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Fr.): 61 carries, 388 yards, 6.4 ypc, seven touchdowns

Those two players combined with either Surratt or Harris should be able to form the nucleus of a solid running game that should be able to keep the Tar Heels competitive. However, there are a few problems with that.

  1. UNC’s defense hasn’t been good, and if they are giving up points it means the Tar Heels have to abandon the running game.
  2. UNC’s passing offense is so bad that defenses can concentrate on the running game.
  3. UNC’s offensive line allows penetration. The Tar Heels rank No. 89 in the country in tackles for loss allowed (41).

Ultimately, I’m not sure there’s much Fedora can do about his offense this year. He just has to wait for Surratt to get more experienced, and try and get some more playmakers at wide receiver, a position that has been a problem for the Tar Heels this year as well. Tailback Jordan Brown is the leading receiver with 20 catches. Austin Proehl, who leads the team with 270 receiving yards, has played in just four games due to injury. He is out for the season with a broken clavicle.

UNC Defense Still Struggles

Before the 2015 season, Larry Fedora hired former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as his defensive coordinator. Chizik made the UNC defense better, but not dominant. Here is a look at their S&P+ defensive rankings under Fedora…

2017: No. 82
2016: No. 44
2015: No. 70
2014: No. 110
2013: No. 39
2012: No. 74

The Tar Heels have had a couple of years with above average defense, but for the most part the UNC defense has been well behind their offensive counterparts. Fedora won’t be able to build a lasting program at UNC unless he can get some consistency on the defensive side of the ball.

Here are UNC’s defensive numbers for the season…

S&P+ Defense: #82
Success Rate: #94
Explosive Plays: #76
Finishing Drives: #49
Rushing S&P: #55
Rushing Success Rate: #100
Rushing Explosiveness: #87
Power Success Rate: #81
Passing S&P+: #109
Passing Success Rate: #77
Passing Explosiveness: #88

This season’s UNC defense has been equally bad through the air and on the ground, from an efficiency perspective. For those of you who prefer more traditional stats, here they are…

Rushing defense: 229.43 ypg, No. 115 nationally
Passing defense: 231.4 ypg, No. 79 nationally
Total defense: 460.9 ypg, No. 114 nationally

The UNC passing defense has a slight edge, but that’s a byproduct of having played Georgia Tech more than anything else. This is a defense that has struggled to make stops all season. No matter how you slice and dice the stats, this is not an effective group.

Familiar Names

While Tech fans who follow recruiting are familiar with UNC offensive players such as wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Juval Mollette, they’ll be even more familiar with some of the names found on UNC’s defense. It has become frustrating for some Tech fans to lose defensive players to UNC, a school that historically doesn’t play anywhere close to Virginia Tech’s level on the defensive side of the ball.

This year’s UNC defense is not good, though there are individual players who could certainly be helping the Hokies. Here’s a list of those players you might already be familiar with…

DE Tomon Fox (6-foot-3, 245 pounds, r-Fr.): Virginia Tech was not recruiting Tomon Fox until Justin Fuente arrived at Virginia Tech. Fox had already committed to North Carolina, but the Tech staff persuaded him to take an official visit to Blacksburg. There was talk of him flipping to the Hokies, but in the end he stayed true to the Tar Heels.

DT Jalen Dalton (6-foot-6, 295 pounds, Jr.): Dalton was one of the highest-ranked players in the state of North Carolina before he committed to North Carolina. Though he has been a starter for the Tar Heels, he hasn’t lived up to his recruiting hype. Is that because he was overrated, or because UNC’s defense hasn’t been good under Fedora? I guess we’ll never know.

DT Jeremiah Clarke (6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Jr.): Clarke committed to North Carolina over offers from the Hokies and several other programs. He is from Northern Virginia.

LB Dominique Ross (6-foot-3, 210 pounds, So.): Like Fox, Ross was committed to UNC when Justin Fuente was hired by Virginia Tech. Like Fox, Ross took a late visit to Blacksburg, but made the decision on Signing Day to stick with his original pledge. You will see Ross on special teams on Saturday.

CB M.J. Stewart (6-feet, 205 pounds, Sr.): Stewart is a versatile defensive back from Northern Virginia. You will see him line up at cornerback and nickel on Saturday. He picked UNC over Virginia Tech coming out of high school. He is currently projected to be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

CB Patrice Rene (6-foot-2, 205 pounds, So.): Rene went to high school in Virginia, though he’s originally from Canada. He would not start for the Hokies, but Tech has serious depth issues at cornerback, and he could have potentially been in a position to start next season had he come to Virginia Tech. The Hokies did not pursue Rene seriously.

CB Myles Wolfolk (6-feet, 205 pounds, r-Fr.): Wolfolk is a Maryland native who originally committed to Virginia Tech. He is in the two-deep at corner and nickel, and will probably play against the Hokies on Saturday. He would be providing solid cornerback depth for Tech, which is something they desperately need.

All of those guys now find themselves playing on one of the worst defenses in the country, and for a 1-6 football team. The Hokies would be a stronger defense with a few of those players on the roster.


Jerod Evans (4) celebrates the 2016 win at UNC. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Final Thoughts

Virginia Tech is 5-1 and ranked No. 14 in the country, while North Carolina is 1-6 and could conceivably finish winless in ACC play. The Hokies are the better team on the field, and they are the better team in the statistics. Tech would have to play a poor football game to lose this one.

The one matchup that concerns me is on the outside. We don’t know the status of guys like Cam Phillips and CJ Carroll, and MJ Stewart is a very good player. Still, other teams haven’t had much trouble throwing the football against UNC, so I figure Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen will be able to scheme their players open without too much difficulty.

Carolina can’t be a confident football team right now, even if they wouldn’t admit it to reporters.

“I don’t know how you fix this,” Chazz Surratt said after the Notre Dame loss.

That’s an odd comment for a football player to make in this day and age of generic “we’ve just got to execute better” type of responses.

I can’t see UNC being in a position to pull the upset in this one. They have averaged 12 points per game over their last four games, and they haven’t scored more than 17 points in any of those games. Unless the Hokies really screw it up by turning the ball over a lot and handing UNC short fields, I believe this will be a comfortable win.

Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, North Carolina 10

Will Stewart’s Take: Someone pointed out on the boards that Virginia Tech’s 34-3 thrashing of UNC last year came after a Hokie bye week, so I researched Justin Fuente’s head coaching record after bye weeks.

Memphis was a bad football team in 2012 (4-8) and 2013 (3-9), and Fuente went 1-2 after bye weeks during those two seasons. It’s worth noting that one of the losses was a narrow 7-point loss in 2013 to a Central Florida team that went 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl.

In 2014-2016 at Memphis and Virginia Tech, Fuente is 3-0 after bye weeks:

  • 2014: Memphis 36, MTSU 17
  • 2015: Memphis 37, No. 13 Ole Miss 24
  • 2016: No. 25 VT 34, No. 17 UNC 3

The 2015 win over Ole Miss (who ended up 10-3 that season) was his signature win at Memphis, and the win over UNC was a dominant victory over a ranked team featuring the number two pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (Trubisky) and six draftees overall.

Saturday’s game is the eighth game in a row for a UNC squad decimated by graduation (snicker, giggle … I wrote “graduation”) and injuries. The Hokies are coming off a bye week and are rested and as healthy as they’re going to be.

That all looks good for the Hokies, but we also know that college football can be crazy, evidenced by several games last weekend that went sideways for heavily favored teams, most notably Cal drubbing No. 8 Washington State 37-3 and Arizona State shocking No. 5 Washington 13-7. (I didn’t include Syracuse over Clemson because that didn’t surprise me.)

The fact that this is a home game for the Hokies probably doesn’t mean squat. UNC’s players might actually play better in front of the Lane Stadium crowd, as opposed to half-full Kenan Stadium. The Heels weren’t impressed during Frank Beamer’s last home game by a loud, sellout crowd, beating the Hokies 30-27 in overtime.

Lastly, while I’d like to see another 34-3 result or something, I’m not expecting or predicting it, because college football is a mercurial affair, and more importantly … the Hokies are going to be wearing orange. They tend not to play their best in orange, and no, I don’t have any data to back that up, but the 2009 home loss to the Heels was an Orange Effect game.

A blowout win over the Heels wouldn’t surprise me, because they’re reeling, but I’ll go with a more conservative pick.

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

I’m not sure how UNC is going to score 13 points, and I might regret predicting that, but that’s my pick.

Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Remember the beginning of the season, when we looked at Virginia Tech and North Carolina on paper? Both teams were losing a ton of talent, and would be forced to rely on some young players.

Fast forward to now, and the two teams could not be any different. The Hokies are poised to once again contend for the Coastal crown, while North Carolina is a M.A.S.H. unit on both sides of the ball and won’t make a bowl game. North Carolina wasn’t a great football team coming into the season, and the injuries and lack of dedication to running the football has made them worse.

Virginia Tech is a little gimpy too. Cam Phillips, CJ Carroll, James Clark and Steven Peoples all could miss this game, which doesn’t bode well for the Hokies. Tech could not afford injuries at the skill positions, and the lack of depth could rear its ugly head in the second half of the season.

Still, North Carolina is bad and Virginia Tech isn’t. The Hokies are better coached, have a better quarterback and a better defense. The Tar Heels’ season is over, while Tech is fighting for another crack at Clemson — or possibly an intriguing matchup with NC State. Oh, and Virginia Tech is likely wearing a bit more orange on Saturday, and y’all know how I love orange.

Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, North Carolina 10

[yop_poll id=”35″]

47 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Got a bad feeling about this one.

    When things seem obvious in CFB, they usually aren’t. UNC is gonna beat someone this year.

  2. This one makes me slightly nervous. The Hokies have had two weeks to hear all about how banged up and just plain bad the Tarheels are. The Cheats, on the other hand, know their season is all but over, and that nothing-to-lose mentality could allow them to play looser than they normally would. UNC makes it uncomfortably interesting for a while, but VT wins 27-17.

  3. If we can smack ’em early they’ll quit, the longer we let them stay in the game the more dangerous things get.

  4. Beware: we’re in all orange (bad); UNC players don’t have to attend classes (bad); We have an uncanny knack historically of falling victim in big underdog situations like this (bad). We ought to win this thing convincingly and yet this game makes me nervous. Time for therapy with Mr. Budweiser and Mr. Daniels.

  5. If Phillips and Carroll do not play, I think the game will be anything but a blowout. Yes, Kumah and Keene had their coming out party at BC, but that is just one game. We’re still waiting for one of our running backs to step it up, but to date that has not happened. Throw in the fact that our red zone offense has been stalling and Slye has been erratic, and I think you have a formula for a much closer game.

  6. Lay it on these cheatin’ mother hubbards. I now hate UNC more than UVA and I thought hating a school more than UVA wasn’t possible.

    1. You’re about 40 years late to my bandwagon but there’s plenty of room, welcome aboard!

  7. Most likely DTs Dalton and Clarke would be OLs at VT. Too tall, like 6-6 Teller went from DT to OL and 6-7 Nijman went from DE to OL. That may be why they stayed committed to UNC. Look at Teller and Walker – they fit the mold for DTs at VT.

    1. I look at Teller and see a guy who’s going to get NFL money playing guard or right tackle on offense.

  8. Ugh ….way to much of how many points we will win by 😬…we play much better as underdogs…this game scares me to death as all my relatives are current students or graduates of UNC and 1 cheerleader 🙅…they are confident in our overconfidence and are sure they will win ….will be relagated to the downstairs tv… my wife a WVU grad gets the game upstairs….need 1 more win over UNC to be to be top dog at thanksgiving 😎

    1. Let’s see, we have been underdogs exactly once this year and we lost, weren’t even in the game, played poorly. We have been favored in 5 games and won all five, playing the first 4 without turnovers. Explain to me how we play “much better as underdogs”.

      1. Long time hokie….not just this years team …but we always played better in the past with a chip on our shoulder….I’m looking for a reason to be wrong…so I hope you are right and probably are but I’m surrounded by tar heels and mountaineers who tell me we are way to confident…was not worried about ODU ,ECU,Delaware or BC….I’m fine with being wrong …will make my weekend 😎

  9. CC: Under the defense section, in giving the three “traditional” defensive stats, you have “ypc” after each one. That’s usually “yards per catch” isn’t it? Don’t you mean “ypg” – yards per game? Good article – hope VT is ready to roll, and roll, and roll, and roll . . . .

    1. Yep, thanks, and that has been corrected.

      We’re actually texting right now about how we need to improve our editing/proofing skills.

  10. I hate orange out games. We play better in maroon and/or white. After that orange out game that was lost due to a RB’s only when a VT

    1. @#!!# phone. Meant: loss to UNC after a RB had his only fumble of the year my orange hoody went in my rag box!! Go Hokies!!

      1. Yes …. but that was only an orange helmet. Not orange jersey or pants. My objection is with the orange jerseys and pants, not the helmet. I love the helmet.

        1. I hate any attempt at going orange in the football unis. Helmet, jersey, pants, whatever. But an all-orange uniform is the curse of the devil. We got wiped out years ago wearing an all-orange ensemble and I’ve hated them ever since. Burn ‘em all. Orange should only be an accent color in a VT football uniform.

    2. Orange effect games are alright by me, as long as it is only the fans wearing all orange! The players, however, should always be limited to *some* orange, not to exceed 50%. Haha.

  11. We’re gonna bury this team and leave them in the ground rot. Fuente won’t call off the dogs until late in the 4th.

  12. Hokies 38+ Saturday, unCheats around 10.. my biggest concern is the MLB not plugging the middle. Because that will be our weakest link, UNC’s QB and RB will try that up the middle runs till VT stops it. Moto don’t like contact head on … just saying I worry about the middle in this game.

  13. 7 votes (out of 196) for UNC to win, 4 of them by 20+. I sense some reverse mojo going on.

    1. And of the next twenty votes, 3 of them were for UNC to win, including 2 more by 20+. (10 out of 216)

  14. Even if Cam Phillips, CJ Carroll, James Clark and Steven Peoples are ready to go, how would it effect our chances of winning the game if we held them out to heal a little more unless it becomes absolutely necessary to play them? Do we have enough players in Savoy, Keene, etc. to still win without these key people in the lineup?

  15. I prefer to forget about the 2009 game. We couldn’t run more than 3 positive plays in a row. It was some Effect game that will no longer be mentioned. We are a Maroon Team.

    1. Did both you and Will forget the 2013 Orange Effect game? Hokies came out in head to toe orange and lost to a bad, reeling Duke team 13-10.

        1. They were reeling in that they had just lost to UVa and they had some injury issues at that time. Bad may not have been appropriate, unless I change my point to the whole division was bad that year.

          Bottom line is that the Hokies should not have lost that game, it was all because of the orange suits. I believe Duke didn’t make a first down or complete a pass, or something stupid like that in the whole 2nd half.

      1. Sorry but not a fan of the orange. Lane Stadium looks like the Great Pumpkin Patch from Charlie Brown. Good as our accent color but keep it white and maroon.

  16. Just reading that we should (summarizing) thump UNC makes me realize this is a classic “trap” game.
    I’ve become increasingly nervous as the week as progressed, and with each successive article.

    1. Agree. They have played some pretty good competition, and we’ve only played one defense with a pulse. I think we win a squeaker.

    2. Any team that would overlook a 3:30 pm conference, DIVISIONAL game in October after a bye week should maybe evaluate whether or not to continue as a program.

      Hokies will not get caught looking. And, if Cam and Peoples can get healthy, I look for the Hokies to hang 60 on these guys.

      The only concern that I have is a proud 1-6 team will be looking at a shot at a ranked, presumed conference front-runner as a Super Bowl. If Fedora can deliver a fiery “let’s turn this around, go 5-0 and get to bowl” speech and get some kids to play out of their minds, The Hokies will have to be on their toes. They need to not have one of those now patented Fuente Slow Starts, but rather come out fast and punch the Tar Heels in the mouth right away.

    3. Any team with the talented players listed above is capable of playing well against the Hokies. And Consider that 4 of the UNC losses they were either ahead in the 4th (duke and Cal) or close (Louisville and uva). The offense is their Achilles heel not the defense. Hokies must not turn the all over or give up special teams score. UNC not playing well in the 4th Q because they run out of depth. Make them earn the yards and eventually poor QB play will make them lose. Orange uniforms not good.

  17. Looking at the stats from last weeks loss to UVA, it’s actually remarkable that UNC got 14 points. They had 12 first downs, 257 yards total, 46 yards passing, 3 TO’s and only had the ball for 20 minutes.

    They probably could have won that game if Stewart doesn’t step out of bounds on a return.

    Yes, UNC is only scoring 12 points in their last four, but they are actually kinda lucky for it to be that high.

  18. some of these same comments could have been used before last year’s Syracuse game. Tech had better be ready to play.

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