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It’s still hard to believe, but Frank Beamer will be coaching his last home game for Virginia Tech this Saturday. It’s been a long time since September 12, 1987 when he coached his first home game, a 22-10 loss to #10 Clemson. Unfortunately, this challenge will be just as daunting a task as that Clemson game. #12 UNC is coming to town, and the Tar Heels are one of the hottest teams in the country.
Since being upset by an inferior South Carolina team to open the season, UNC has won nine games in a row. That includes back-to-back wins over Duke (66-31) and Miami (59-21) that forced the whole country to stand up and take notice. In both of those games, the UNC backup offense played the entire fourth quarter. To show you how much of a roll the Tar Heels are on right now, here are backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s stats over those two games: 10 of 10 for 127 yards, 4 carries for 26 yards.
Larry Fedora has been slowly building this Carolina program, but he knew he needed a defense to go with his offense. He went out and hired Gene Chizik to coach the defense in the offseason, and though things aren’t perfect, they have improved quite a bit. Here are UNC’s defensive efficiency ratings from 2014 compared to this year…
While still not dominant, that 36 spot improvement has helped the Tar Heels take the top spot in the Coastal Division this season.
Let’s take a closer look at #12 North Carolina.
The UNC Offense vs. the VT Defense
Here’s how these two units match up statistically, with the UNC offense listed first…
Success Rate: #18
Explosive Plays: #5
The Tar Heels feature a very balanced offense that is capable of driving the length of the field. They are also one of the best teams in the country when it comes to creating big plays. This will be one of Bud Foster’s biggest challenges of the season.
Here’s how the Tech defense stacks up…
Success Rate: #10
Explosive Plays: #122
Tech’s defense has played better the last two weeks against two teams who have a combined one ACC win. However, UNC will be a totally different animal. The Hokies are one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to giving up big plays, and that’s a matchup that goes UNC’s way on paper.
UNC is #5 in the country in explosive plays, which means they have a lot of athleticism. However, they also have a lot of size across the board on the offensive side of the ball.
QB Marquise Williams (6-2, 225, Sr.): Williams actually looks and runs bigger than he’s listed. He’s completed 66.2% of his passes for 2,222 yards, with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s also run for 659 yards, averaged 6.9 yards per carry, and scored nine touchdowns on the ground. He’s one of the most productive players in the country.
RB Elijah Hood (6-0, 220, So.): 945 rushing yards, 6.1 ypc, 12 rushing touchdowns. Hood also has nine catches out of the backfield. He’s a dynamic running back at the college level, and the Tar Heels would be undefeated right now had Larry Fedora not forgotten about Hood in the South Carolina game.
WR Quinshad Davis (6-4, 220, Sr.): UNC went into the state of South Carolina and beat out the Gamecocks and Clemson for Quinshad Davis. He is the school record holder for career receptions (189) and receiving touchdowns (23). He’s also third all-time in receiving yards.
WR Bug Howard (6-5, 210, Jr.): 22 catches, 407 yards, three touchdowns. Howard is an experienced veteran.
WR Mack Hollins (6-4, 210, Jr.): 22 catches, 585 yards, seven touchdowns. Hollins averages 26.6 yards per catch. As a comparison, Andre Davis averaged 27.5 yards per catch in 1999, and you know how fast that guy was! What’s even more impressive is that Hollins is a former walk-on.
The Hokies will have a lot of talent and size to deal with on Saturday. The Tar Heels can attack defenses both horizontally and vertically, which makes them extra dangerous.
The UNC Offensive Line
From left to right, the UNC offensive line looks like this…
LT Bentley Spain (6-6, 300, So.): 4-star recruit, top 200 player, offers from everybody
LG Caleb Peterson (6-5, 300, Jr.): 3-star recruit; offers from Alabama, Auburn, Stanford, etc.
C Lucas Crowley (6-3, 290, Jr.): 3-star recruit; offers from South Carolina, Tennessee, Nebraska, etc.
RG Landon Turner (6-4, 325, Sr.): 4-star recruit, top 125 player; offers from Florida, LSU, Stanford, etc.
RT Jon Heck (6-6, 300, Jr.): 3-star recruit; Miami offer; son of Andy Heck
No offense can be complete with a good offensive line, and the Tar Heels have that. For the most part, their line is made up of players who had multiple scholarship offers from some of the major programs throughout college football.
Here’s how these guys are viewed from an NFL Draft standpoint, per NFLDraftScout.com.
Spain: #6 OT in the 2018 Draft
Peterson: #7 OG in the 2017 Draft
Crowley: #8 C in the 2017 Draft
Turner: #3 OG in the 2016 Draft
Heck: #12 OT in the 2017 Draft
In other words, there’s a very good chance that every single starting offensive lineman for UNC could be drafted. They’ve paved the way for an offense that averages 5.8 yards per carry, and they’ve allowed just 11 sacks in 10 game. At worst, this is the second best offensive line on Tech’s schedule this year, and they could be even better than Ohio State’s line.
The VT Offense vs. the UNC Defense
Here’s how Tech’s offense ranks…
Success Rate: #77
Explosive Plays: #117
Tech has been pretty balanced between the run and the pass. However, those big plays that were there the first few games of the season have pretty much disappeared.
Meanwhile, here’s what UNC’s defense looks like…
Success Rate: #92
Explosive Plays: #1
Obviously big plays are going to be hard to come by in this game. Tech doesn’t make them, and UNC is the best team in the country at stopping them. The Hokies must take advantage of UNC’s subpar rushing defense. Travon McMillian and company need to have a big game.
The Secondary: The Strength of the Defense
Michael Brewer noted that North Carolina does a great job taking away the opposing team’s top receiver with bracket coverage, and they show offenses a number of NFL looks.
UNC ranks #11 nationally in pass defense, and #1 in explosive plays allowed. Though their S&P+ pass defense rating is only #53 nationally, it still clear that the secondary is the strength of their defense.
Northern Virginia native MJ Stewart (5-11, 200, So.) leads the team with three interceptions and 15 passes defended. In fact, Stewart ranks #9 nationally in passes defended despite missing two games due to a suspension.
I’m not looking for a huge game out of the Virginia Tech passing game, but they have to do enough to sustain drives. The Hokies have to be balanced, or else it will be tough to score points.
Time of Possession: What Does it Mean?
The party line this week goes something like this: “Virginia Tech need to run the football effectively to keep North Carolina’s potent offense off the field.”
On paper that makes sense. There’s one problem, though. That’s exactly what UNC’s opponents have done all season, and it hasn’t worked. UNC gives up a lot of rushing yards, and they rank #125 in the country in time of possession out of 128 teams. On average, the Tar Heels hold the ball for less than 26 minutes per game. Yet the Tar Heels have one of the most explosive offenses in the country, so what does it really matter?
Well, it does matter. In their last two games, UNC has scored 125 points. Their time of possession in those two games is split 50-50 with the opponent. They are getting the ball about four extra minutes per game over those two contests. For an explosive team like the Tar Heels, that could potentially mean two or three extra touchdowns, and that could be the difference in the game.
Travon McMillian needs to have a big game, and the Hokies also need to find someone to help him out in the running game. The Hokies have averaged 39.9 carries per game this year, not including sacks. They probably need to run it even more than that this weekend, but to do that they are going to have to find somebody who is capable of giving McMillian a rest.
Points: The Most Important Statistic
Sure, UNC has struggled to stop the run. Sure, while their defense has improved, it’s still not the most statistically dominating defense you’ll see. However, UNC does one thing really well (besides not allow big plays): they don’t give up very many points. Teams are scoring just 18.8 points per game against the Tar Heels. That ranks #20 in the country.
Here’s how UNC ranks in each special teams category, according to the FEI advanced stats on FootballOutsiders.com.
Field Goal Efficiency: #2
Punt Return Efficiency: #4
Kick Return Efficiency: #39
Punt Efficiency: #120
Kickoff Efficiency: #66
Opponents Field Goal Efficiency: #23
On the whole, Carolina is excellent at special teams, though their punt team could use some work. However, Virginia Tech has been better on special teams this year, at least according to the FEI rankings.
Field Goal Efficiency: #10
Punt Return Efficiency: #28
Kick Return Efficiency: #57
Punt Efficiency: #8
Kickoff Efficiency: #85
Opponents Field Goal Efficiency: #39
Virginia Tech’s rankings are slightly skewed because of the blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Purdue. That brings up punt return efficiency to #28 nationally when we all know that Greg Stroman hasn’t been doing particularly well. Still, Tech has been solid across the board on special teams this season. It’s certainly an improvement from two years ago.
Whoever grabs the special teams advantage in this game could turn out to be the winner. It’s imperative that the Hokies stop Ryan Switzer.
Speaking of Ryan Switzer (5-10, 185, Jr.), he’s capable of making an impact on the game in a number of ways. In the passing game, Switzer is the second leading receiver on the team with 36 catches for 539 yards (15 ypc) and four touchdowns. He can also be used on end-arounds, though the Tar Heels have only tried that a few times this season. In fact, he’s even thrown two passes this season.
He’ll put stress on Tech’s defense, but he’ll also put a lot of stress on the punt coverage team. He is averaging 16.4 yards per return this year, including two returns for touchdowns. He tied the NCAA record for career punt returns for touchdowns (7) against Miami this past weekend. He returned a punt for a touchdown against the Hokies back in 2013, but it was called back for an illegal block.
Here’s how Switzer has fared returning punts against the Hokies the last two seasons:
2013: 3 returns, 18 yards
2014: 6 returns, 7 yards, 1 lost fumble
Total: 9 returns, 25 yards, 1 lost fumble
Tech’s punt coverage team is having a great year, and they need to continue their past success against UNC’s dynamic return man.
Switzer grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. The Hokies recruited him, but didn’t offer. He ultimately chose UNC over Florida State, Duke, Georgia Tech, Northwestern, Penn State, West Virginia, and others. He is very familiar with Frank Beamer and the Virginia Tech program.
“I have nothing but respect for Coach Beamer,” Switzer said. “He recruited me coming out of high school (Editor’s note: VT did not offer Switzer a scholarship). Unfortunately I want him to take a loss his last game, but ultimately I have nothing but great respect for him, and he’s a really great guy.”
I really want to pick Virginia Tech to win this game. I certainly believe they can win it. The Hokies will be emotionally charged up, and Tech finds a way to beat the Tar Heels more times than not. Still, emotion will only take you so far. In the end, games come down to talent and execution. As former Virginia Tech quarterback and now Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said recently, “Snotbubbles and tears don’t win [crap].”
What Bruce means is that you can lay it all on the line emotionally, but you still have to block, tackle, take advantage of turnovers, protect the ball, recognize blitzes, limit your penalties, and do all the other little things that win football games. The Hokies may have the emotional edge to start the game, but when it comes down to it they are going to have to out-execute North Carolina over 60 minutes of football. They haven’t been able to do that consistently this year.
Virginia Tech has played better the last two weeks. Nobody can deny that. However, you can’t also deny that those two wins came against two teams who are a combined 1-13 in conference play. In fact, Tech’s five wins have not been particularly impressive.
Furman: FCS opponent
Purdue: 2-8 overall, 1-5 Big Ten
NC State: 6-4 overall, 2-4 ACC
Boston College: 3-7 overall, 0-7 ACC
Georgia Tech: 3-7 overall, 1-6 ACC
The Hokies have only beaten one team with a winning record, and their three ACC wins have come over teams who have gone a combined 3-17 in the league.
The Tar Heels are way more talented than anyone Tech has beaten so far, especially these last two ACC opponents. Though I’d like to emotionally pick a Tech win in Frank Beamer’s last game, all the numbers shown in this article point towards a UNC victory.
Chris’ Prediction: North Carolina 30, Virginia Tech 24
Will Stewart’s Take: Hmmm. When faced with that preview and analysis, how do you pick the Hokies to win with a straight face? This is a pretty big mismatch, pitting a team in UNC that is hitting its stride, to say the least, against a team in the Hokies that … well, they mean well, but they make a lot of mistakes and don’t really have a big strength they can lean on.
This one’s going to be tough, folks. UNC’s got it going on, and the “explosive plays” matchup is a scary one, especially this first pair of stats:
- UNC Offense Explosive Plays: #5
- VT Defense Explosive Plays: #122
- UNC Defense Explosive Plays: #1
- VT Offense Explosive Plays: #117
That’s a recipe for disaster. But if you’re going to pick the Hokies to win, like I am, you just do it, because it’s Frank Beamer’s last home game, and I’m not picking VT to lose Frank’s last home game.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, UNC 24