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UNC vs. Virginia Tech: Three Things to Watch

The Heels look to improve their perfect Coastal division record this weekend against the Hokies.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Rhode Island at Virginia Tech

The Tar Heels will be coming off of the first of two bye weeks this weekend when they travel to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech. Mack Brown in his UNC career is 8-2-1 coming out of the bye, and is 30-7-1 overall, so one has to feel good going into this game in terms of whether or not he came up with a solid plan. The Hokies, however, are coming off of a 34-17 win against Rhode Island, and are on a mission to earn their second ACC win of the season.

When looking at this game on paper, it feels like these two teams represent exactly what the ACC is right now: a parity machine that is pumping out some sloppy results so far. That’s not to say that either teams are bad — especially UNC, who went toe-to-toe with Clemson and came within just a few yards of winning the game — but rather it’s just that nobody in the conference not wearing orange and purple is doing enough to stand out so far.

The Heels will have such an opportunity this weekend, as they could legitimately make a strong run the rest of the way to make their first bowl game since Mitch Trubisky’s last game in El Paso. Here’s what they need to do to get past the Hokies, and get one step closer to achieving that goal.

Phil Longo’s gameplan

During an interview this week, UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo spoke with the media about Virginia Tech’s defense, and what makes them potentially tough to deal with. He pointed out that they are going to load the box, which both makes it difficult to establish the run and will also will cause issues if the Heels choose to throw the ball due to the pressure it presents. What this boils down to is that UNC’s offensive line needs to perform at the same level that they performed at the last two games and try to keep Sam Howell and the running backs out of bad situations.

Should the O-line earn the trust of Longo, I would expect to see some similar things to what we saw in the game against Georgia Tech. The Heels were relatively balanced but effective in their 587 yards of production, and the key to repeating their success will be the running backs. If Javonte Williams has another big game, Sam Howell should have a much easier time getting some good looks down the field. He’ll have to be quick at getting his throws off, however, as the Hokies are fifth in the ACC in recorded sacks.

The game plan on offense is going to be simple: win the line of scrimmage, and UNC’s chances of winning this game are pretty good. Let’s hope the offensive line still has some of that magic left that they’ve been using the last couple of games.

Getting stops on third down

While winning the battle at the line of scrimmage is going to be important on the offensive side of the ball, it is also going to be just important to pull it off on defense. It sounds like something that goes without saying, but it’s especially true when Virginia Tech is the eighth-best team in the country at converting third downs, which is good enough for second-best in the ACC.

So how have they been getting it done? One of the answers is a relatively new one, as the Hokies now have redshirt sophomore Hendon Hooker as their starting quarterback. One of the things that UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman pointed out this week is that Virginia Tech has been running the ball a little bit more with Hooker in the game, and he’s been able to do so without turning the ball over. He was also the leading rusher in the win against Miami, logging 76 yards and one touchdown.

Outside of the quarterback position, there’s nobody that really stands out around Hooker that has had consistent success. Running back Deshawn McClease had 100+ yards on the ground Rhode Island and Duke, but struggled against Miami and Boston College. Against ACC opponents, the best passing game that the Hokies had was a 344-yard performance against Boston College, but against Miami they had 184 passing yards off of only 20 passing attempts. They do have some talented receivers, but they haven’t been utilized a great deal as of late due to how much they have been running the ball.

In short, Virginia Tech’s total production numbers are interesting for a team that manages to stay on the field so well. If the Heels plan on getting off of the field, they’re going to have to shut down their ground game and test Hooker’s passing abilities in third and long situations. This team seems like they really don’t like throwing the ball, so something tells me when they do the Heels will have their opportunities to make some plays.

Forcing mistakes

Speaking of making some plays, this is one of those games where the key objective is going to be to force Virginia Tech into a couple of turnovers. They have been really good at taking care of the ball since their loss against Duke, as they didn’t turn over the ball at all against Miami or Rhode Island. One weird stat: the Hokies coughed up the ball twice in each game leading up to the Miami game, except in the Boston College game when they committed 5 turnovers.

While such a large amount of turnovers is usually a quarterback problem, the Hokies had a fumbling problem that they’ve finally gotten under control. It will be important for the Heels to attack the ball as much as they can, because something tells me that their turnover issues aren’t gone for good. It will also be really interesting to see if Hooker can stay interception-free against Bateman’s defense if the Heels are successful in shutting down the run, but if he continues to throw less than 30 passes per game, then it may be tough finding opportunities for a pick. We’ll find out if that remains a thing on Saturday.

In short, if the Heels control the line of scrimmage and get Virginia Tech to turn the ball over, then I like their chances of winning this game. It’s time to see if Mack Brown is still able to keep his teams focused coming out of a bye week, and hopefully we’ll be looking at a two-win streak going into the Homecoming game against Duke.