Game Preview: No. 19 Virginia Tech Set To Take On No. 8 UNC

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Virginia Tech UNC
Virginia Tech and North Carolina meet Saturday in a rematch of last year’s 6-OT classic, won 43-41 by the Hokies. (Ivan Morozov)
  • Virginia Tech at UNC: Noon, ABC
  • Virginia Tech vs. UNC Betting Line: UNC -5
  • Virginia Tech-UNC roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
  • Chapel Hill weather: Click here

No. 19 Virginia Tech heads to Chapel Hill for a big matchup against No. 8 UNC that could go a long way towards determining who will most likely face Clemson in the 2020 ACC Championship Game.  

The Hokies have won four games in a row against the Tar Heels dating back to 2016, and there have been some memorable moments for Tech fans in recent years.  

2016: Tech won 34-3 in UNC in a game played in the remnants of a Hurricane.
2017: A 59-7 rout in Blacksburg.
2018: The Hokies drove the field in the final minutes to win.
2019: A dramatic 6OT victory for Tech that will go down as one of the greatest games in Lane Stadium history.

There have been big blowouts, and there have been nailbiters, yet the result has always been the same over the last four years: Virginia Tech has won.  You’ve got to figure that the Tar Heels are tired of that, and most people believe that this is UNC’s best chance of beating the Hokies over the last few seasons.

Carolina is 2-0 with a 31-6 victory over Syracuse and a 26-24 win over Boston College.  They had to shut down their program twice over the summer, and they didn’t play a game between  September 12 and October 3, so it’s been difficult for the Heels to get into a rhythm.  The Hokies have had their own issues, as we know, and most recently the problem has extended to the secondary, which is the last place where you want to have COVID-19 issues in the week leading up to the UNC game.

Let’s take a closer look at the Tar Heels.

Sam Howell, Virginia Tech
Sam Howell will try and push the ball down the field against the Virginia Tech secondary. (Ivan Morozov)

UNC’s Dynamic Passing Game

North Carolina has a trio of dynamic wide receivers that you probably remember from last year’s game.  Two of them had over 1,000 receiving yards a year ago, and combined together they are easily the most gifted group of the receivers that the Hokies will have faced so far this season.

Dyami Brown (6-1, 185, Jr.): 78 career catches, 1,361 yards, 17.4 ypc, 13 TDs
Dazz Newsome (5-11, 190, Sr.): 137 career catches, 1,782 yards, 13 ypc, 12 TDs
Beau Corrales (6-3, 205, Sr.): 74 career catches, 1,020 yards, 13.8 ypc, 11 TDs

Those three players gave Virginia Tech plenty of trouble last year, particularly Newsome out of the slot.  The Hokies played very well at cornerback in that game with Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller, but UNC was able to have success against Tech’s safeties and nickels.  Redshirt freshman Khafre Brown (6-0, 175) has also found some success early in his career, catching five passes for 70 yards and a touchdown through his first two games.

Throwing them the ball will of course be Sam Howell (6-1, 225, So.) who has put up impressive stats in his one season plus two games…

Comp: 298
Att: 482
Pct: 61.8%
Yards: 4,161
TD: 41
INT: 10

Howell had a fantastic season as a true freshman last year, as the Tar Heels were one of the best teams in the country in generating big plays down the field in the passing game.

However, things haven’t been as easy through the first two games of 2020.  Howell has three touchdown passes to three interceptions, and he’s struggled to connect on balls thrown 20+ yards down the field, as the statistic below shows.

I’ll have more in the closing section of this article on why I believe the Tar Heel deep ball game hasn’t been clicking so far this season.

Despite UNC’s struggles down the field in 2020, this is still a very worrisome matchup for the Virginia Tech secondary.  The Hokies were missing their top four cornerbacks last week against Duke, starting free safety Divine Deablo, and key backup JR Walker.  How many of those guys will they get back during the course of this week, and on what day?  We aren’t 100% sure.  Guys like true freshman Dorian Strong and redshirt sophomore Nadir Thompson did well in their first defensive action last week, but these UNC receivers and Sam Howell present a much different level of talent.

Michael Carter
Michael Carter is a dangerous running back. (Ivan Morozov)

UNC Running Game Provides Balance

 North Carolina’s passing game gets all the attention, but Justin Fuente was very quick to point out that the Tar Heels are very balanced and that he is especially impressed by both of UNC’s running backs.  Here are their career numbers…

Michael Carter (5-8, 199, Sr.): 381 carries, 2,358 yards, 6.2 ypc, 13 TDs; 64 catches, 455 yards, 7.1 ypr, 4 TDs
Javonte Williams (5-10, 220, Jr.): 234 carries, 1,271 yards, 5.4 ypc, 14 TDs; 28 catches, 312 yards, 11.1 ypr, 2 TDs

Carter had 1,003 rushing yards last season, while Williams added 933.  That’s very good production from two different running backs, on top of the fact that the Tar Heels were also very good at throwing the football.  Balanced offenses are what worry defensive coordinators the most, and when they are rolling, the UNC offense is extremely balanced.

The UNC offensive line doesn’t start any single seniors, but their run blocking grade so far this season by Pro Football Focus is only a 59.7, which ranks 12th in the ACC.  On the whole, I don’t think this offensive line is as good as NC State’s, but I think it’s more talented than Duke’s, and the Blue Devils were able to run the ball on the Hokies in the second half.  Last season the Tech defense was able to hold the Tar Heels to just 3.6 yards per carry, and they’ll need another good effort against the UNC running game this time around.

Virginia Tech, Quincy Patterson
Quincy Patterson had success on the ground against UNC last season. (Ivan Morozov)

UNC Good Against The Run, But How Good?

Virginia Tech ranks No. 3 in the country in rushing yards per game, while North Carolina ranks No. 1 in rushing defense.  From a statistical standpoint, this is a matchup of the unstoppable force meeting the impenetrable object.

Of course, it’s far too early in the season to know exactly how good either team is at running the ball and/or stopping the run.  Each team has only played two games, and the matchups change each week.  Generally speaking though, I think we know more about Virginia Tech’s rushing offense than we do about UNC’s rushing defense.

Here is NC State’s rushing defense in their three games this season…

NC State rush defense:
vs. Wake: 49 carries, 149 yards, 3.0 yards per carry
vs. VT: 41 carries, 314 yards, 7.7 yards per carry
vs. Pitt: 37 carries, 92 yards, 2.5 yards per carry

From a yards per carry standpoint, the Wolfpack defense has successfully defended the run with one exception: Virginia Tech. 

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And now here are Duke’s numbers…

Duke rushing defense:
vs. Notre Dame: 42 carries, 178 yards, 4.2 ypc
vs. BC: 42 carries, 84 yards, 2.0 ypc
vs. UVA: 37 carries, 188 yards, 5.1 ypc
vs. VT: 50 carries, 324 yards, 6.5 ypc

Notre Dame and UVA had some success running against the Blue Devils, but nobody has been able to do what the Hokies did in the second half. BC is terrible at running the football, as we’re about to see.

Meanwhile, here’s what UNC’s opponents have accomplished on the ground in all of their games, starting with Syracuse…

Syracuse rushing yards:
vs. UNC: 35 carries, 68 yards, 1.8 ypc
vs. Pitt: 34 carries, 51 yards, 1.5 ypc
vs. GT: 41 carries, 163 yards, 4.1 ypc

As usual, Syracuse has had numerous offensive line injuries.  Per this article 16 of the 30 scholarship offensive linemen under Dino Babers have missed multiple games due to injury, an entire season, or had their career ended.  A 17th quit the program.  Yikes.  I don’t know how those guys block anybody.  Oh wait…they don’t.

Here’s what Boston College, UNC’s second opponent, has done on the ground…

Boston College rushing yards:
vs. Duke: 42 carries, 84 yards, 2.0 ypc
vs. Texas State: 27 carries, 87 yards, 3.2 ypc
vs. UNC: 19 carries, 40 yards, 2.1 ypc

BC couldn’t even run the ball on Texas State, and by the time they played the Tar Heels they had pretty much quit trying to run it.  The Eagles threw it 56 times and ran it just 19 times against UNC, and that includes three sacks.  And the game was close!  With BC throwing the ball three times as much as they run it…I feel like the world has turned upside down.

Point being, we don’t know exactly how good UNC is at stopping the run because they haven’t played anyone who can do it yet.  Meanwhile, the Hokies have run all over an NC State team that has had success stopping the run against their other two opponents, as well as a Duke team that has been middling. 

I said after the NC State game that Virginia Tech was good in the running game, but they wouldn’t be able to run for 314 yards again.  Well, they went out and did exactly that against Duke.  It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to do it three weeks in a row, but at this point I do think they’ll have success on the ground against the Tar Heels.  The bigger question is whether or not they can find balance in their offense.

The biggest name to watch on defense is quarterback-turned-linebacker Chazz Surratt (6-2, 225, Sr.), who is considered an NFL prospect, though I believe that cornerback Storm Duck (6-1, 195, So.) is their best defensive player.  Surratt is a good athlete, but he’s been inconsistent against the run at times, with a PFF run defense grade of just 49.7 last season and 59.7 so far this year.  Watch him on the pass rush, though, as he’s quite good there.  He and fellow inside linebacker Jeremiah Gimmel (6-1, 225, Jr.) are on the smaller side, and the interior of Tech’s offensive line – led by center Brock Hoffman – will be looking to get a lot of movement up the middle.

Special Teams

Through two games, North Carolina has the worst special teams rating in the ACC with a score of 59.2.  Virginia Tech is No. 5 at 76.4, with Khalil Herbert’s exploits returning kicks obviously being a big factor there.

The Tar Heels have capable return men in their own right, with Michael Carter returning kicks and Dazz Newsome fielding punts.  Both of those guys are capable of generating big plays. 

Redshirt senior placekicker Grayson Atkins is a grad transfer from Furman.  He’s just 2-of-4 on the season, but he was 13-of-15 last season with Furman.  He was 7-of-9 from beyond 40 yards last year, though he’s 0-of-2 from that range in 2020.  Punter Ben Kiernan seems solid, though it’s too early to judge Carolina’s punt coverage as a whole because opponents have returned just two punts against them this season.  Kickoff specialist Jonathan Kim has boomed all 11 of his kicks through the endzone this season.

A big play by either team on special teams could change the trajectory of this game.

Hendon Hooker, Virginia Tech
Hendon Hooker played well against UNC last season before getting hurt. (Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech-UNC Final Thoughts

I’ve said that I think Tech can run on UNC, but that doesn’t mean the Hokies will win the game.  The big questions will be…

1: Can the Tech offense be balanced?
2: Can a Tech secondary that is sure to be playing a lot of backups slow down the UNC passing attack?

That’s where  the game will be decided, with turnovers also an X-factor as they are in nearly every game.  But assuming turnovers are equal, can Virginia Tech make progress in the passing game, and can the outmanned Tech secondary keep from getting torched by a dynamic passing game?  It would help to get back a few of those DBs who missed the Duke game, but we won’t know with 100% certainty until one hour before kickoff on Saturday.  That 11am announcement (it’s been one hour before kickoff before each of Tech’s first two games) could be critical to the outcome of this game.

Of course, the other question is who will play quarterback for the Hokies?  Will Hendon Hooker be back, and if he is, will he have kicked off all the rust and will he be 100%?  Will there be some kind of a rotation?  We don’t know.  As a Greensboro native, I assume Hooker will badly want to be back for this one.

We said it before the season, and we’ll say it again.  Not knowing who is and isn’t playing in games makes it virtually impossible to pick this year.  I’ll feel a lot better with some starting DBs back, but will they be back?  I don’t know. That goes the other way, too.  We don’t know if anyone for UNC will be unavailable.

I said earlier that I’d provide some thoughts on why UNC’s downfield passing game hasn’t been successful, and I’ll do that now.  UNC sent their students home back in August due to a high number of COVID-19 cases, and the football program temporarily shut down on August 19.  Back in July, the Tar Heels also suspended football activities for at least a week.  No games were being played at the time, so there were no announcements, but it’s probable that UNC had guys out for the same reasons that Virginia Tech had guys out.  It just happened to them earlier.

Fast forward, and the UNC season began on September 12.  The Tar Heels got off to a slow start, not really showing up offensively against Syracuse until the fourth quarter.  Then they were off for two straight weeks, thanks to a game cancellation by Charlotte, and didn’t play again until October 3.  So their program was shut down twice before the season started, we don’t know who missed practice and for how long, and then they went two weeks without playing once the season began.

The passing game is about timing and chemistry.  It’s hard to develop that timing and chemistry when you aren’t practicing and you aren’t playing, so it makes sense that the UNC passing game hasn’t been on point like it was last season.  Same with Virginia Tech.  The Hokies shut down their program, and many players have missed practice time, including Braxton Burmeister, who has also never gone through spring practice.  Finally playing two games in a row could help the Tar Heels when it comes to timing.

Or, maybe the causes of their passing game issues go beyond that.  It’s hard to say from the outside looking in.  At any rate, I worry that they are due to break out, just as Duke was due to have a relatively turnover-free game last week.  I think this one will be high scoring, but with so many defensive backs potentially out for Tech (and the ones who might be back having had limited practice time) I think the advantage goes to UNC.

Note: I know it’s supposed to rain some on Saturday, but Accuweather says only 0.12 inches during the day, so I’m not factoring that into my prediction.

Chris’s Prediction: UNC 34, Virginia Tech 31

Will Stewart’s Take: I openly admit this is “pick with the heart” week. When I can see a path to victory for each team, picking sometimes comes down to my mood or my attempt to guess which way the wind is going to blow. If I’m down on the Hokies that week, I’ll pick them to lose (NC State game, anyone?). If I’m wishing for good fortune, I’ll pick the Hokies.

Yes, the UNC passing game is scary and could light Tech’s defense up. Even if it doesn’t, their running game could. Their tailbacks are very good and very tough, and don’t sleep on Sam Howell’s running ability. He’s wiggly and relatively fast and pretty tough himself. One of the worst parts about defending Sam Howell is that when he breaks the pocket, he keeps his eyes downfield and is pretty good throwing on the run.

Sometimes when you’re on defense you can tell an opponent’s play isn’t going anywhere. With UNC, the play isn’t over until their ball carrier is on the ground, period. They can break tackles in the run game and turn near-sacks into long-ball touchdowns.

So their offense is scary. We get it. So is Virginia Tech’s.

Even the most optimistic Hokie fan has to admit surprise at the level of offensive line play and running ability shown by Khalil Herbert. What we haven’t seen is the rest of the offense. Will Hendon Hooker play, and will we see more of what Tech can do on offense? I think so. Some jet sweep, some pop pass, some misdirection passing to the tight end? A trick play for a TD? Could be. I think Virginia Tech’s going to need all hands on deck offensively to win this one.

Here’s UNC’s path to victory: light up Tech’s depleted DB corps with a passing game that is finding its rhythm, and do a better job defending Virginia Tech’s running game than anyone else has done. Throw turnovers and special teams into the mix, and UNC might win big.

Virginia Tech’s path to victory: pound UNC with the running game, hit a few opportunistic passes, pressure Sam Howell with the D-line and linebackers, and hope he doesn’t find that downfield passing game that’s been missing so far this year. Don’t let Michael Carter and Javonte Williams truck you in the running game. Hope that Dazz Newsome says quiet, please. (He had a 47-yard TD catch on UNC’s first possession last year; so far this season, in three games, he only has 31 total receiving yards.) Throw turnovers and special teams into the mix, and Virginia Tech might win big.

More than likely, this game is going to come down to the wire. Remember this, though: last year, UNC controlled the game early. With 2:03 left in the first quarter, the Heels had run 23 plays for 157 yards to Virginia Tech’s nine plays for 24 yards, and the Heels led 10-0. Then Hendon Hooker hit the deep ball to Tre Turner, and the 6-OT thriller was underway. If things go sideways early, hang in there and stay the course.

This is becoming a great rivalry. When the schedule comes out, it’s one of three annual games that you immediately look for, with Miami and UVA being the other two. It had its moments early on, but as a rivalry, it really ramped up in 2015, when they ruined Frank’s last home game, and the 2016 hurricane and the 2017 VT blowout game really added to it. Not to mention last year’s game.

Pick-with-the-heart time. I’m going with the shootout. I never pick shootouts, and I’m going to pick one this time.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 41, UNC 35

A word of warning: former Hokie DT Jeff Holland sent me a spreadsheet before the last bowl game that broke down 15 years of our game predictions, and when Chris and I pick differently, as we did here, Chris is right 64 percent of the time, and I’m only right 36 percent of the time. Boo.

What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-UNC game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (14%, 277 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (58%, 1,176 Votes)
  • UNC Wins by 1-10 (20%, 414 Votes)
  • UNC Wins by 11+ (8%, 169 Votes)

Total Voters: 2,036

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Last Week’s Virginia Tech-Duke Prediction Poll Results

Game result: Virginia Tech 38, Duke 31

What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Duke game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (64%, 525 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (32%, 265 Votes)
  • Duke Wins by 1-10 (2%, 18 Votes)
  • Duke Wins by 10+ (1%, 9 Votes)

Total Voters: 817

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30 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I’m a little hesitant to make a prediction since I got mentioned in Will’s Monday Thoughts. What an honor. Well I had a dream the other night that the Hokies were playing, although the other teams uniforms were dark so I thought it was Wake Forest, but I see UNC is going with navy jerseys for this game so here goes. The other team had the ball and driving, down to the Hokie 40 yard line with about 40 seconds left on the clock. Hokies were up 8. Then my son woke me up. Do they score in the waning seconds? I’m going to say the defense holds and the Hokies win 46-38.

  2. CC and Will, I have been saying for months that part of the reason I wasn’t buying the UNC hype was the common cliché of “Sophomore Slump”. That doesn’t necessarily just apply to players but also to systems. Last year UNC was brand new and able to catch teams without a lot of time to prepare for their offense. ACC teams have had an entire year with nothing to do except study the opposing teams and figure out how to beat what they are doing. I think that is an under-mentioned aspect of this game. UNC feasted last year on big passes, yet haven’t been able to this year. Sure that could be because of timing and rust, but that could also be that defenses are taking it away this year and making them have to score on long drives. I think that has also contributed to there ability to run the ball as well. However, what that does is shorten the game and limit their points. Given their offensive line, I like our chances of blowing up a drive the longer it takes. Now good coaches can counter those adjustments, so it will come down to whether UNC can figure out a new way to get their receivers involved. This game will be won in the red zone, not in between the 20s.

  3. I’m with Will as Tech always seems to have the grit to win these close conference matchups.
    I think the baby blues hate seeing us coming. Will we need a few DB’s back to get it done.

  4. I’m all in w TnT. The DL will pressure Sam to help w our thin secondary.
    HH returns and we sprinkle some Brock and maybe a QP on short yardage and hopefully we run 70% of the plays.
    37-31 Hokies

  5. Watching VT’s defense run out of gas against Duke until an amazing stop near the end makes me think UNC will have a huge day. Is our run O really that good? Hard to tell in the days of CV as no one seems to have full manpower. A.H.

    1. all about who is fit to play in our D-backfield and how much more fitness we have on D-line. It’s going to take maybe 38 points to win.

  6. Good analysis. How much upside do we have in our passing game do you think? As you said, Covid has impacted us also. Coming in, I thought our ceiling was actually quite high – improved QB, all top WR, two good TEs, and versatile backs that can catch out of the backfield and a much improved OL. So I think our ceiling is high. Not as high as NC, but still can win games for us this year. May not be this weekend, but I think by end of year we have have the second best overall offense in the ACC, after Clemson.

  7. Will, I think you flipped the hurricane and blowout years. 2016 was the hurricane game and 2017 was the blowout (partially do to all of the excuses from the cheaters).

  8. Agree with Will that this a pick from the heart game. On paper, due to our Covid MIAs, UNC would seem to be favored. But this team just feels like they are in a groove right now – effort level feels like its 150% – I don’t know – it just feels right for VT to make it 5 in a row over the baby blues.’

  9. One thing I noticed was Blackshear protects the ball with both arms when he meets a tackler. Herbert didn’t switch the ball to his outside arm on his long KO return. He doesn’t carry it like a loaf of bread like MV1 though.

  10. Chris, I sure hope “Carolina is 2-o” in 5th paragraph is just a typo, and you have not adopted writing style of the code writer. 🙂

    1. Funny story … when we’re editing, 2-o looks almost exactly like 2-0 (in the font the editor uses).

      Out here on the site, it does NOT. 😜

  11. If we don’t get our secondary back and UNC manages to win. Will this game really matter for the rivalry?
    Because when Chris Coleman does the game preview for 2021, he will give us the scores over the last 5 seasons and say something like: “Last season, UNC won BUT that was with COVID and when our entire starting secondary was out”
    I’m not making excuses for our potential lost, but overall I don’t think UNC fans should get Bragging Rights from this one.

  12. If the o-line really is elite..Hokies win
    If the o-line if “only” very good and tar heels study two games on film ……UNC wins

    VT 31 UNC 24 in some rain

  13. Way to go Will. Nothing wrong with showing some confidence in the good guys! When it comes to Vt scoring predictions, I prefer to see the TSL staff leaning to PATT.

      1. Au contraire … the best bosses hire people who are smarter and better, and get out of their way.

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