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UNC vs. Virginia: Three Things to Watch

What to look for in the battle for first place in the Coastal.

NCAA Football: Duke at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

UNC’s dramatic win over the Blue Devils on Saturday placed the Tar Heels back in a tie at the top of the ACC Coastal division. The other team at the top is Carolina’s opponent this week, Virginia. In other words, the winner of this game will gain sole possession of first place and be in solid position to reach the ACC Championship game in Charlotte. Here are three things to watch versus the Hoos.

Winning the Turnover Battle

It’s somewhat of a cliché, but turnovers are a major key to winning football games and that’s been especially true for Carolina. Look no further than its last game against Duke. Up just three, the Tar Heels were looking at overtime at best when the Blue Devils marched all the way down to their two-yard line. Then, Chazz Surratt picked off an attempted jump pass to effectively end the game.

The only reason they were in that position in the first place was because of a fumble by Javonte Williams on the Blue Devils’ goal line. The Heels haven’t done a terrible job of protecting the football to this point in the season, but they must be able to avoid committing those errors during the most critical junctures of the game.

Virginia, despite its success, has been among the worst in the nation in terms of holding on to the football. They currently rank 116th in the country in total turnovers lost with 16. The Carolina defense will have an opportunity to add to that total this weekend.

Javonte Williams

For the most part, the passing game has rarely been the problem with Carolina’s offense. It’s been the running game, and more specifically the play of Javonte Williams, that has dictated how well the Heels are able to move the ball. In four wins this season, Williams has 70 rushes for 433 yards (6.2 ypc). In the Heels’ four losses, he’s had just 46 carries for 207 yards (4.5 ypc).

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo caught some flack after the Virginia Tech game for not incorporating the running game enough. Williams’ physical, downhill running style is simply too effective to be ignored for extended stretches. Longo obviously recognized this in the Duke game, giving Williams double the amount of carries he received against VT (22 to 11).

It’s imperative that the Heels establish the ground game early and often against the Cavaliers, and that starts with Williams. If he can get going, it’ll take pressure off of Sam Howell and allow the offense to open up as it did at times last week.

Competing for 60 minutes

This Carolina team is certainly no stranger to drama. Seven of its eight games have been decided by six points or less. However, several of those games felt like they shouldn’t have been as close as they were.

Early in the season, the Tar Heels struggled coming out of the gate, especially against teams like Wake Forest and App State. The Heels got down 21-0 and 27-10 in the first halves of those games, respectively. It’s fair to wonder if the end results would’ve been different had the Heels woken up before they did.

In recent weeks, against teams such as Virginia Tech and Duke, the Heels have jumped out to early leads with the potential to win going away only to stall and let their opponents back in the game.

Aside from maybe the Clemson game, it feels like we haven’t yet seen this Carolina team put together a full four quarters of inspired football. It was somewhat encouraging early in the year, but eight games in, these guys should be able to stay focused and compete throughout the entirety of the game. They’ll need to do just that to take down Virginia on Saturday.