The Oldest Rivalry in the South will have another chapter by Saturday afternoon, as UNC and Virginia square up this weekend in a game between two programs headed in vastly different directions. To prepare for watching this, we asked Caroline Darney of our SB Nation sister site, Streaking the Lawn, some questions about their team ahead of the matchup. Check out her answers, and also be sure to head over there for my answers to her questions as well as some coverage of this game from the other side!
1. The Cavaliers are one of the top teams in the country ATS and have a legitimate chance at a Coastal title. What did you expect from this season before it started and what are your revised expectations?
Before the season started, I thought this team was good enough to make a bowl game, and potentially pick up maybe another win in there to finish 7-5. I was admittedly higher on this squad than a lot of others, but I loved what I saw from the defensive backs and was excited about adding Bryce Perkins to compliment Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheaus. Now, I think this team could reach nine wins...which is insane. I think Virginia surprised a lot of people by picking up wins over Miami and Duke (I thought they’d win one of the three with those two and NC State), and now the so-called easier portion of the schedule remains. No one team in the Coastal Division has looked dominant, and Virginia is in the driver’s seat to [takes deep breath] maybe play in the ACC title game?
2. What has been the position group that has surprised you the most this season, and why has it been so surprising? Give fans of a currently floundering program some hope, please.
I have to go with special teams...that counts as a position group, yes? Virginia’s kicking game was a huge question mark, and it looks like Coach Mendenhall has found his guy in second year Brian Delaney. He took his first shot at a field goal this season against Miami and went 3-for-3 in that game (including a 46-yarder). It was the first time in several seasons that the Hoos had a field goal over 40 yards, and his ability to hit true on the kicks was the difference in the game as UVA won 16-13. He did miss two last week against Duke in the first half, but made both in the second. Additionally, the Virginia kick return game has been much improved as Tavares Kelly and Joe Reed (and a couple more guys) have been solid. Last week against Duke, Virginia started almost every drive with outstanding field position.
I think it’s mostly been surprising because it has been an area that has just lagged behind and there were no clear-cut stars (especially in place kicking). The return game had flashes last season, but their ability to consistently make the right call and pick up extra yards has been welcome.
3. First-year starter Bryce Perkins’ passing stats aren’t gaudy, but they’re impressive, and I saw him make a couple of high-level throws in last week’s highlights. Not having seen him play a ton, though, how has he replaced, in your estimation, and what are his biggest strength and weakness as signal-caller? (Is it cheating to have this all as one question?)
Haha, not cheating at all! My goodness, what a breath of fresh air Perkins has been. His ability to evade trouble, use his legs to pick up yardage, and still connect on impressive throws is something that hasn’t been seen in Charlottesville in ages. Where Kurt Benkert was a pocket passer last season, Perkins can kind of do it all. The decisive touchdown at Duke kind of showcases it all:
He evades, finds his man, and makes the pass. He’s made some bad decisions (three picks against Miami), but he’s showing improvement across the board and not making so many risky plays. Sometimes, he can rely a little too much on his legs (we saw that a lot against Indiana), especially under a lot of pressure, but overall he’s improved there, too.
4. What other names should we know on the Virginia offense besides Perkins and the statistical leaders in rushing and receiving (Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheus respectively)?
Hasise Dubois is my favorite. He’s a strong wide receiver at 6-3, 215, and he’s got 30 receptions for 340 yards and two touchdowns this season. Tight end Evan Butts had the decisive touchdown against Duke, and I’m always for TE utilization. The other guy(s) to watch this week are PK Kier, Chris Sharp, and Lamont Atkins. With Jordan Ellis maybe not at full speed due to injury, Kier will be a huge piece in the Virginia running game. Against Duke with Ellis out in the second half, Kier had 12 rushes for 36 yards. Not world-beating, but it could end up being a “running back by committee” approach with those three.
5. Flipping to the Virginia defense, which it’s safe to say has been the calling card for this team; 13 turnovers in 7 games is bonkers. Who are some guys to keep an eye on, or for the UNC offense to avoid? Does the UVA defense have any weaknesses that you’ve seen so far this season?
I’ll start with the weakness. The defensive line has had it’s issues at times with allowing too much time for the QB (namely Ryan Finley for NC State), which then puts the DBs in a bind. Against the rush, they’ve been...ok? They only allow an average of 120 yards per game on the ground, which is good for fifth in the ACC.
Now, for the guys to avoid. I would not recommend throwing it anywhere near Juan Thornhill (four INTs) or Bryce Hall (14 pass break ups, two INT). The defensive backs have been incredible the past couple weeks, picking off Miami three times and Duke twice. Thornhill, Hall, Harris, and Blount (wow, that sounds like a law firm) are getting better each week and it’s awesome to see. At the linebacker position, the leader is Chris Peace. He’s leading the team in sacks with five, but is just a handful defensively. Zane “ZZ Stop” Zandier and Charles “the Abominable” Snowden are a fierce pair of second year linebackers who have been a revelation.
6. Finally, what’s your score prediction for this one?
I think UNC has played well in their last two games, so I’m concerned they’re trending in the right direction. This one will be closer than I hope, but Virginia will pull away to win 28-17.
Thanks to Caroline for her answers, and Go Heels!