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UNC Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech

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I said in the preseason this was a “put up or shut up” game for Larry Fedora. That’s an understatement.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

College football is, at its core, an irreconcilable list of contradictions. The ‘inability’ to pay players, or allow them to transfer freely, while multi-million dollar coaches can leave in the middle of the night notwithstanding, the contradictions trickle down to the micro level of evaluating teams on a game-by-game basis. Due to small sample size, preconceived notions, and extraneous factors ranging from recruiting rankings to the more ambiguous “player development” and “talent deployment” make a team’s true talent level impossible to pin down.

Take Virginia Tech.

  • After Week 1, the college football media collective sang Bud Foster’s praises for shutting down Florida State’s offense in Tallahassee, a 24-3 win. We didn’t know how bad Florida State’s offense was going to be in the transition from Jimbo Fisher to Willie Taggart.
  • They hung 62 on William & Mary. Cool.
  • We had an opportunity to get a ‘like’ result, but Hurricane Florence wiped out their game with ECU the week after the Pirates demolished Carolina, 41-19. Lost data point.
  • In the most inexplicable outcome of the season, Tech went to Old Dominion and gave up over 600 yards, losing 49-35. They lost Josh Jackson, dismissed Trevon Hill, and appeared to be falling apart at the seams.
  • They came back the next week, and beat a top 25 Duke team by 17 on the road.
  • The Hokies had the national spotlight against Notre Dame in Sandman country, and they acquitted themselves well...for a half.

A line graph of Virginia Tech fan angst, starting at the dismissal of half of their defense over the summer, would have the most extreme highs and lows of any in college football this season, and that makes them a very difficult team to project.

The uneven feel of Tech’s season has them ranked 47th in S&P+ as of this writing— 40th on offense, 59th on defense, and (to the surprise of nobody) 16th on special teams. With Carolina hanging on to a back-end top-100 rating (98th), the Hokies are 71% favorites to win in Chapel Hill on Saturday night, with a projected margin of 9.4 points. A cynical Carolina fan would say 71% is too low, but let’s talk through it.

Carolina Offense vs. Virginia Tech Defense

The attrition on the Hokies’ defense was very much NOT overstated— they lost a ton of talent. But, Bud Foster is a legend for a reason. He’s dug up new playmakers ahead of schedule, including junior box safety Reggie Floyd, sophomore linebacker Rayshard Ashby, and sophomore DB Khalil Ladler to join veterans such as D-linemen Ricky Walker and Houshun Gaines. Seven players (including the dismissed Hill) have at least three tackles for loss, seven have sacks. In Foster terms, they’re still generating havoc from all over the field.

That...does not bode well for anything Carolina seemingly wants to do with the football.

Carolina’s trio of Antonio Williams, Jordon Brown, and Michael Carter are averaging 5.8 yards per carry on 90 attempts. Carolina’s trio of passers, Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt, and Cade Fortin, are averaging 5.5 yards per pass attempt with 7 interceptions. The rushing output of the three backs would be good for 15th in the country. The passers are tied for 124th in the country in YPA (with ECU, of all teams), and tied for 12th-most in interceptions.

With some renewed dedication to running the football, the Heels’ offense could have a puncher’s chance in this football game. Tech ranks 15th in yards per attempt against the rush at a paltry 3.16 yards per carry average, but that includes 34 yards on 29 carries from William and Mary and 71 on 36 against Duke. Notre Dame and Old Dominion exploited some weaknesses...but that was with the threat of the pass.

For the Heels to have any consistent success moving the football and scoring points, they have to find success on the ground early and often. My colleague Jake Lawrence was on to something suggesting some form of triple option. I shudder at Elliott or one of the freshmen having to make reads against a Foster defense that is very good at turning quarterbacks over.

Virginia Tech Offense vs. Carolina Defense

The Webster’s Dictionary defines “average 2018 college football offense” as “Virginia Tech”. The Hokies are perfectly adequate at running the football, but not spectacular by any stretch. Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease are splitting duty, with Peoples faring a little better (366 yards, 5 TD.) A strong performance by the Carolina defensive front would be ideal, because the jury is still out on quarterback Ryan Willis.

Willis, a Kansas transfer, was interception-prone in Lawrence, throwing 18 picks versus just 12 touchdowns over 17 games. Not that you can really pin that strictly on him. He has acquitted himself nicely in two starts at Tech, hitting on 59% of his passes for 836 yards, 6 TD, and one interception. The passing offense has thrived under him more than it did under Jackson, as Willis has 9 different receivers with multiple catches over his two starts.

Damon Hazelton has been the primary beneficiary, as the slot (Michael Campanaro trigger alert) receiver caught 12 balls for 131 yards against Notre Dame. Erik Kumah and Hezekiah Grimsley have 16 catches apiece, and tight end Dalton Keene amassed 82 of his 104 yards on the season in Willis’ first start against Duke.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Fuente’s offense is predicated on finding mismatches and force-feeding playmakers, so with the spotty play from Patrice Rene and the true freshmen at nickelback, look for one or two receivers to dominate, at least insofar as targets.

With two games’ worth of tape on Willis, one hopes that John Papuchis and company have found a common denominator to get him back to his turnover-prone ways as a Jayhawk. Otherwise, it could be a long night for the Carolina secondary.

Coaching, Special Teams, and Intangibles

I wrote in the preseason that this was a “show me” game for Larry Fedora— Fuente has circled Carolina on the calendar in each of his two years...and scored two embarrassing blowouts.

I still trust Fuente and Foster to have the Hokies prepared for this game more than anyone roaming the Carolina sideline. Similarly, I prefer a walk on the beach to a walk through an active hog farm.

If the Heels are well-coached in one phase of the game, it is still special teams— a Virginia Tech specialty, historically. Carolina should be able to play the Hokies to a draw in that department.

Outlook

I had Tech winning 34-24 back in July, and while Virginia Tech is still beatable, Carolina is more beatable than I perceived this summer.

Hokies 34, Carolina 13.