Dax Hollifield remembers every game between Virginia Tech and North Carolina since 2016. Heck, he played in four of them.
For the fifth-year linebacker from Shelby, N.C., the Tech-UNC rivalry hits different. He was recruited by the Tar Heels once upon a time but chose to play for the Hokies and the legendary Bud Foster. The 2016 meeting in Chapel Hill is still etched in his memory: a 34-3 win by Tech in the effects of Hurricane Matthew.
At the game as a UNC recruit, Hollifield hadn’t yet chosen a side. But as the high schooler sat in the pouring rain in his poncho, he observed Tech’s defense dominate, which happened frequently that season.
“It was raining cats and dogs,” Hollifield said on Wednesday of the 2016 game. “That whole year really sold me. It felt like my type of crowd. They fought their way and didn’t start off great. … But they found a way and kept chugging along and really found themselves.”
The past few games in the series have been entertaining. Tech’s won five of the last six, including a thriller in six overtimes in 2019 and last year’s 17-10 contest in Blacksburg. But the one that stands out in Hollifield’s memory is the 22-19 come-from-behind win in 2018.
He was six games into his freshman year. The Hokies were outgained – UNC put up 522 yards to their 375 – but pulled off a stunning comeback. The Tar Heels drove to Tech’s one-yard line leading 19-14 with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Against a struggling VT offense, all they had to do was punch it in.
Instead, Tyree Rodgers forced UNC’s Michael Carter to fumble, which Jovonn Quillen recovered. That led to an 18-play, 98-yard drive for the Hokies, capped off by a game-winning touchdown pass from Ryan Willis to Dalton Keene.
“We’re thinking like, ‘Dang, man. We’re so close,'” Hollifield said of the 2018 win. “But at the end of the day, we had a 90-, 95-yard drive to win the game and honestly, to be on the sideline, that was pretty memorable for me. Just being really recruited hard by UNC and Virginia Tech and sort of my homecoming for me being a North Carolina guy, that meant a lot to me. Getting that dub there was pretty memorable.”
That’s the kind of juice one can expect at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Chapel Hill when Virginia Tech and North Carolina meet for the 45th time. Weather conditions similar to 2016 are expected, too, thanks to Hurricane Ian. But Kenan Stadium is a turf field, which should help the drainage.
While 2.5 inches of rain are expected between 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, the wind is what really worries Tech head coach Brent Pry. Gusts between 20 and 30 mph are expected during the game, which can alter a gameplan.
For a Virginia Tech offense that has been below average, super predictable and too one-dimensional through four weeks, that could be an issue.
“That’s what makes it tough to throw the football,” Pry said of the expected wind gusts. “The rain? A lot of teams can throw the ball in the rain still. I think Grant [Wells] can. And I think their quarterback can. But that wind makes it a little bit of a challenge, so we’re keeping a close watch on that, and we’ve talked about it every day.
“You have to have a plan for if you can’t throw the ball because of the conditions, if you can’t kick the ball because normally because of the conditions.”
Tech center Johnny Jordan said the offensive line was “embarrassed” after the team ran for just 35 yards against West Virginia. But the Hokies are onto the next chapter in the book, and they’ll have to carry a clean slate into the weekend. And similar to the Battle for the Black Diamond Trophy, UNC has an explosive offense, meaning Grant Wells & Co. need to sustain drives to keep that group off the field.
“I think you have to be patient and take what they give you,” Pry said of facing the Carolina defense. “Keep converting. And honestly, if you can run the football it’ll make them tighten up, and it keeps their offense off the field. I thought that was a big factor for Notre Dame. They were able to run the ball and limit the number of snaps of Carolina’s offense on the field.”
Practice Observations, Injury Notes
Running back Malachi Thomas participated in practice that the media observed on Wednesday. It’s a good sign, and Pry said he’s “doing more.” The staff will make a decision on Thursday morning as to whether Thomas travels to UNC, though the sophomore is “looking much, much better.”
Cornerback Dorian Strong injured his hand against West Virginia and was unavailable for Tech’s Wednesday practice. Pry said he was getting treatment and rehabbing and he will be a game-time decision for North Carolina.
Sam linebacker J.R. Walker was not at practice due to a minor injury. Pry said expects Walker to play on Saturday and “bounce back really quick.”
With Walker’s absence, Keonta Jenkins and Jayden McDonald were splitting the reps at Sam linebacker. Keli Lawson has moved to Will and appears to be earning more playing time. Hollifield said Lawson is “a hell of a ballplayer” who throws his body around and isn’t scared to go out and make a play.