Your UNC Tar Heels head up to Thomas Jefferson’s old stomping grounds this weekend. They’ll roll into Charlottesville where they have a 3:00 clash with the Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday. There was a time when that thought would force Heels across the country shudder (1996, AMIRITE!?). Fortunately the Charlottesville Curse has apparently been kicked to the curb, as UNC holds a six-game win streak over that other highly reputable public academic institution in the ACC. Sorry not sorry to any opposing fan that may be offended. Except, of course, to UNC-Raleigh. Kicking is hard (go to the 1:25 mark).
Undefeated against UVA since 2010, UNC looks to extend UVA’s misery. If they are successful, UNC remains in the race for the ACC Coastal Division crown. If the Charlottesville Curse decides to return, then UNC will likely launch a bidding war between the Music City Bowl and the Belk Bowl. While I enjoy a good pair of pants and some genuine southern style, I’m hoping the Heels can avoid that fate.
Currently, the offense is reeling from injuries, especially on the offensive line. Jon Heck is questionable, while Caleb Peterson (back) is out for the year. Freshman William Sweet with get his first career start in place of Heck. Suddenly, what was once thought to be the greatest strength on the offense, has turned into a weekly game of musical chairs. Eight different players have started on the offensive line for UNC this season. That is not usually the preferred method of a coaching staff.
Additionally, Mack Hollins has been lost for the year to a broken collarbone. Fortunately, the Heels have a little more depth at the wide receiver position. Nonetheless, with the season’s home stretch on the horizon, this is usually when championship teams are refining their systems and rotations, not looking for Band-Aid solutions for their cuts and bruises.
NORTH CAROLINA OFFENSE
The big question is, “How do these injuries affect UNC, and what can we expect to see from them?”
The answer to that is complex, but for the short term, the coaching staff is not likely to make any drastic changes. UNC runs a multi-option system and has built a program where they thrive on the mantra “Next Man Up”. They won’t panic or change their style. That being said, there are a few concerns with regards to how UNC will handle UVA and their defense.
Michael touched on a few key stats in his film preview yesterday, so I won’t rehash those. UVA’s leading tackler is linebacker Micah Kiser. Interestingly, Kiser is the top tackler in the conference, and sixth in the nation, with 67. He averages 11.17 tackles per game. The dude is all over the field, where he has 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and four defended passes.
Additionally, as Michael also mentioned, UVA loves to blitz. That’s noticeable by a quick glance at the stat sheet. The Cavaliers have recorded 13 sacks on the year. Eight of those are attributed to five different UVA linebackers. A young offensive line is going to literally have their hands full. Hopefully Elijah Hood is back to full strength, because his pass protection is going to be vital to keeping Mitch Trubisky on his feet.
UNC can combat these issues with a few different options. First and foremost, Mitch has to use his legs. With a patchwork offensive line, and defenders coming from all angles, his ability to scramble or keep the ball himself on RPOs will be able to extend drives. It is no coincidence that the two most complete performances by UNC this season were against Illinois and Miami. In both of those games, Trubisky was an effective third rushing option for the UNC offense.
Secondly, and I know some of us sound like a broken record at this point, UNC has to commit to the running game. UVA does allow 169.83 yards a game on the ground, at an average of 4.25 yards per carry. The Heels don’t have to be explosive. Against Miami they only averaged 3.8 yards per carry on 43 attempts. With even less experience on the offensive line this week, similar success can reasonably be expected, and that's perfectly acceptable.
Admittedly, UNC has been inconsistent in committing to the run this year. Yet, they have been at their best with a balanced attack. If UNC can eat some clock and still move the ball with a fast paced tempo, then Mitch will have just enough freedom to feast on a dreadful pass defense.
Speaking of which, Virginia’s pass defense is porous, and their second leading tackler is junior DB Quin Blanding. He averages 10.33 tackles per game. When a defensive back is among the top tacklers on your team (and in the conference), there’s a strong chance your pass defense has issues. That’s been the case this season as UVA has allowed an average of 280 passing yards per game. Four times, they’ve allowed over 300 yards. They have given up 11 touchdown passes, including seven in the red zone.
If the offensive line (and Hood) can even slightly delay the UVA pass rush, and the running game has moderate success, then Switzer and Austin Proehl (and hopefully T.J. Logan!) should have a busy afternoon catching some of Trubisky’s tosses. If the pass protection does not materialize, Trubisky will have to offset the pressure with screens or quick decisive throws to the sidelines or slot WR.
I’m honestly not completely sure how explosive this offense can be without Mack stretching the defense, but they still have plenty of talent to light up the scoreboard. However, if they cannot find a wide receiver to be a reliable third option, then UVA will be able to solely focus on Switzer and Bug. If that happens, UNC’s offense may stall before it ever gets rolling.
NORTH CAROLINA DEFENSE
UNC’s defense has also felt the injury bug all year long. That trend continued on Thursday when back-up middle linebacker freshman Jonathan Smith was lost for the year to a foot injury. That makes a thin linebacker corps even skinnier. Remember, starting middle linebacker sophomore Andrew Smith is suspended for the first half after getting ejected for violating the
asinine, completely subjective, laughably inconsistent, well-intentioned, protective, health-conscious targeting rule against Miami.
This may not bode well for the second level of the UNC defense. UVA’s offense has been oriented around their quick-strike passing attack. Of UVA’s 23 touchdown drives, 18 have been on drives of 3:50 or less. That’s almost UNC levels of fast. Curiously, UVA only averages seven yards per attempt. Essentially, they prey on the middle of the field, and hope their wide receivers attain high yards after catch.
The Tar Heels’ ability to cover those short and medium routes has been abysmal, and that blame lays largely at the feet of the linebackers. Wheel routes (Pittsburgh and JMU) and crossing patterns (Miami) have perplexed UNC all year. UVA’s passing game is the exact kind of kryptonite that can hurt UNC’s current defensive alignment.
A depleted linebacker corps also may be ominous for the UVA run game. UVA’s starting running back, Taquan Mizzell, averages 5.5 yards per carry. If Virginia decides they want to run the ball, UNC may have another long day in Charlottesville. Virginia averages almost 30 attempts per game. For what it’s worth, UNC’s opponents are averaging 48 rushing attempts per game. Something will have to give. We’ll see if UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall is as stubborn as Larry Fedora.
Fortunately, the interior of the defensive line is as healthy and dominant as they have been all year. Despite the constant injury turmoil, they have still forced 15 sacks with five regular season games remaining on the year. That is well ahead of last year’s pace, and the hardest part of the schedule is behind them. Malik Carney (3.5 sacks) and Mikey Bart (three sacks) have finally given UNC a forceful pass rush from the edges, while Nazair Jones continues to stop almost anything that runs between the tackles.
That pass rush can hopefully provide some relief to the secondary as well. If there is one noticeable weakness in quarterback Kurt Benkert, it’s his seven interceptions. That’s more than one per game, and as we all now, UNC has yet to record an interception this year. A stiff pass rush can force Benkert into making a few bad (great!?) decisions. This worked against Illinois and Miami. All that has been missing is the turnovers.
Ultimately, UVA will present some challenges, but at this point, there is very little that this defense has not experienced. There will be some hiccups, especially in the first half, but UNC should eventually pull away from the Fighting Thomas Jeffersons.
UNC will win if….
-They commit to the running game
-Trubisky commits himself to the running game
-The linebackers don’t get turned around/upside down in pass coverage
UVA will in if….
-George Welsh and Tiki Barber come back to party like it’s 1996.
-They overwhelm UNC’s young offensive line
-They don’t allow UNC to find a third option at WR