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UNC Football vs. Virginia Tech: Game Preview

The Tar Heels are a slight favorite in this important Coastal Division matchup.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

A quick look at the ACC Coastal Division standings tells you all you need to know about tomorrow’s 3:30 game against Virginia Tech.

The North Carolina Tar Heels can either put themselves in the driver’s seat with a victory tomorrow or test fate with a lackluster effort in Blacksburg.

Meanwhile, the Hokies are fighting to stay in contention in the Coastal. But it may be more than that for VT. At this juncture, Virginia Tech is favored in just one remaining game this season when they travel to Georgia Tech.

There are two other important games on the schedule this weekend. Tonight, Pitt takes on Syracuse. With a Panthers victory, they will join the 2-1 logjam in the Coastal. Pitt is a future opponent for both teams as UNC and VT both play them in November.

Tomorrow, at the same time as the Carolina game, Duke travels to Charlottesville. The winner of that matchup will be 3-1 in the conference. With both Duke and Virginia on the schedule the next two weeks, the game on Saturday becomes even more important for the Tar Heels.

In his weekly press conference, head coach Mack Brown touched on several topics. Here are a few takeaways from Monday:

  • “We control our own destiny.” It might not have been the way it was scripted, but Brown and the Tar Heels are excited to be in the mix for the Coastal Division. This Saturday will be a pivotal moment in the pursuit of a division title.
  • “Next man up.” There are a lot of injuries and the primary concern is in the secondary. Trey Morrison had surgery on a broken arm last week, adding to the list of injuries to the defensive backfield. Morrison joins Patrice Rene, Myles Wolfolk, Cam’Ron Kelly, and Tre Shaw as injuries DBs.
  • Open week preparation. Brown was working on a few different things during the bye. First, he was resting guys that are injured while preparing depth players to be ready to take to the field, especially in positions with injuries. One point of emphasis for Brown was practicing with “game speed but staying healthy.” He wants the team to practice like they play and this is especially important coming off a bye week. Additionally, he tasked players with watching the games of upcoming opponents and preparing a mental game plan.
  • Dropped balls have been an issue with the receivers. There is talent with the receivers, and they are getting healthier, but there has been a lack of focus on some passes. Receivers coach Lonnie Galloway worked with the receivers on the bye week to correct this problem.

After the 45-10 collapse at home against Duke, Virginia Tech made a quarterback change. Since Hendon Hooker took over as the signal caller for the Hokies, the VT offense has improved.

As Brown noted, Hooker is the dual-threat quarterback that Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente prefers in his offense. And this dynamic player has made a difference for the team.

In the wild 42-35 victory over Miami, Hooker went 10-20 for 184 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. He was also the leading rusher for VT, gaining 76 yards on 16 carries and one touchdown.

Against Rhode Island, Hooker had another three passing touchdown and no interception day, but this time had 16 completions for 261 yards. He added 43 yards on 15 carries on the ground.

In his press conference, defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said that containing Hooker will be a priority. The defense will take lessons, both good and bad, from previous opposition quarterbacks that could run in Wake Forest, Appalachian State, and Clemson.

Junior running back Deshawn McClease is coming off his best game of the season and his second 100+ yard game of the year. With Hooker as a threat to run, the Hokies now have a dangerous 1-2 punch with their running attack available on nearly every down.

During his press conference, Brown said “their receivers are as good as anyone in the country.” With the injuries in the defensive backfield, the Hokies pose an even greater threat to the UNC defense.

The Hokies receiving and tight end corps is led by Tayvion Robinson. He is the top target for VT with a team leading 23 receptions and 245 yards. However, the team has many targets.

To demonstrate this, there are six players with at least 100 receiving yards. Damon Hazelton is second on the team with 194 receiving yards while Kaleb Smith has 116 yards. These many weapons may challenge the Tar Heels with matchups and depth concerns in the second half.

With all the injuries to the secondary, this will be the personnel on the field for UNC: Greg Ross and Storm Duck will be the starting corners against Virginia Tech. Obi Egbuna Javon Terry, and DeAndre Hollins will join those two at cornerback. At safety, Don Chapman and D.J. Ford will replace the injured Wolfolk.

In spite of all these challenges, Brown said he has full confidence in Bateman in preparing the defense and implementing schemes that will cover some of the weaknesses on D.

The key to victory for the defense will be third downs. Virginia Tech has been excellent this season on third down, ranking eighth in the country at 51.2 percent. Quick slants must be well-defended and the ability of Hooker to scramble will be a new challenge moving forward for VT’s opponents. The Carolina defense will need to get off the field and simply cannot let the Hokies sustain drives, especially on third down.

On offensive, Brown said the “hardest thing is to prepare for the Bud Foster defense.” Virginia Tech will pack eight or nine players in the box and it will be difficult for the Tar Heels to run.

In his press conference, offensive coordinator Phil Longo reiterated how impressed he was with Javonte Williams. Besides coming off a career high 144 yards against Georgia Tech, Longo points to him as an important piece in pass protection and will certainly be involved in that effort against Virginia Tech.

However, if the running game struggles against the stacked VT box, how will Sam Howell respond?

Howell and his receivers have a chance to take control of the game. The Virginia Tech secondary has struggled. As highlighted earlier in the week:

Virginia Tech’s secondary is the weak phase in their defensive unit. The Hokies rank 78th in the nation in pass defense, allowing an average of 234.7 yards per game. And it will only get worse for the first half against Carolina. Starting safety and senior captain Reggie Floyd will sit out the opening half due to a targeting call in the fourth quarter versus Rhode Island.

With all the focus on dropped balls from the receivers, there is an opportunity to quiet the critics. And this is certainly the time to do so.

Much like the Hokies, the Heels have a lot of targets and the return of Antoine Green is good news for both Howell and the other receivers. Howell gets a 6’-2” target and the other receivers can catch a breath.

With an offensive line that was characterized by Longo as “relatively healthy,” can they provide the protection Howell needs? As long as Charlie Heck is in, there is always a chance that will be the case. With this unit now working with seven or so regular players, this young offensive line continues to improve and will face a tough challenge tomorrow.

Can the Tar Heels get it done tomorrow in Blacksburg? Brown, more often than not, has been a winner coming off a bye week. You certainly have to think that the Tar Heels will be prepared for tomorrow’s game.

But at the end of the day, it comes down to execution. Do not expect the same type of performance from the Hokies as last week against Rhode Island. For many segments of the game, they played down to their opponent.

However, it is never easy in Lane Stadium and Virginia Tech is reporting a sellout on Saturday. If UNC gets behind the chains, the Hokie defense could throw them off their game plan.

If Carolina can get some early rhythm with the offense and a couple of timely third down stops on defense, it could be a good day for the Heels.