Once again this week, the North Carolina Tar Heels are traveling for a primetime game against an opponent they should handle.
Despite having the top total offense in the league, and a total defense ranked 39th out of 101 teams in the nation, UNC is favored by just 6.5 points Saturday night.
Why do the #15 Tar Heels hold such a slim margin in what appears to be an uneven matchup?
Following a dominating win over NC State on Saturday, UNC head coach Mack Brown put it bluntly during his press conference on Monday:
We had this discussion after practice yesterday. After you beat Virginia Tech, everyone is patting you on the back and hugging you and talking about how great you are and you listen to all of it and didn’t play and got beat. So we can try it again if you want to. We can walk around, feel good about ourselves. Or we can do what we say we’re supposed to and put this thing away. I said after the victory meal on Sunday night, “brag on yourself, enjoy it, have your highlights, text your buddies, talk to your parents, and have a blast.” When you go to bed tonight- and you can enjoy it till you go to bed- when you get up the next morning- and that’s what’s tough about them having press conferences on Tuesday because you’ll ask them about NC State more than you’ll ask them about Virginia- but I said, “talk about Virginia.” NC State does not matter anymore. That one’s gone. It’s done for a year. We can’t do anything about that game for another year. You need to focus on Virginia only. It’s a one game season. I said, “if we can’t do that, we’re going to be disappointed again on Saturday night like we were two weeks ago.” And then we’ll be saying, “what happened?” We know what happened. You didn’t practice well, you didn’t focus, you let the win beat you the next week. And you can’t let a loss beat you twice, but you also can’t let a win beat you the next week. You have got to learn from it because we still have mistakes we can fix, and then you have got to move on.
Everyone, including the oddsmakers, saw what happened last time Carolina was facing the same scenario. Brown is making it clear he does not want the same outcome as last time.
Until Carolina can prove that it can win these spotlight games, the prognosticators may temper their expectations when UNC is in primetime.
Another intangible is Carolina’s performance on the road so far in 2020.
This season among ACC schools, there is a distinct advantage as the home team.
When analyzing overall records for the conference, the home team is 35-13 this year compared to 11-27 on the road.
The Tar Heels are 3-0 in Kenan Memorial Stadium, outscoring their opponents 135-72.
On the road, UNC is 1-1 with a scoring margin of only 54-53.
With Virginia having a cap of 1,000 in the stadium, there will not be a traditional home field advantage. However, with the travel protocols in place, the logistics of just getting to the opponent’s field is seeming to affect visiting teams.
The biggest reason for a projected tight game is the Virginia quarterback situation. Sophomore Brennan Armstrong returned last week against Miami after suffering a concussion during UVA’s game versus NC State.
Armstrong is a dual-threat quarterback of the variety that can give Carolina fits Saturday night.
The lefty quarterback had a strong stat line in their game against #11 Miami. Armstrong went 16-30 for 181 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions through the air and carried the ball 15 times for 91 yards. He was the leading rusher on either team that game.
Co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman had this to say about defending a dual-threat quarterback:
We are very well aware of our lack of success against rushing quarterbacks. Coach Brown has reminded us of that a few times and we are going to spend a lot of time this week preparing for that. I think we have seen some really bad examples of defending the quarterback run, so hopefully we can put some good examples in practice and in the game on Saturday.
The UVA offense makes use of wildcat formations and has a true rushing attack by committee.
Wayne Taulapapa and Shane Simpson are the primary backs, but reserve quarterbacks Keytaon Thompson and Iraken Armstead have also provided 25 rushing attempts this season, combining for 163 yards and a one touchdown.
But with all the talk about the rushing options, UVA is ranked fourth in the ACC with 264.3 passing yards per game. It is worth noting that their average passing yardage is last in the ACC, with just 5.3 yards per completed attempt - so they pass a lot, but aren’t too efficient at it. To further hamper their aerial attack, Virginia will be missing their big play freshman receiver Lavel Davis, as he remains as out for Saturday.
The UNC defense needs to look for multiple schemes, quick passing plays, and probably a little trickery on Halloween.
For total defense, the Cavaliers are near the middle of the conference, allowing 413.5 yards per game. However, they are 13th in the ACC with 34.8 points allowed per game.
Last week against Miami, UVA did a good job on run defense. The Hurricanes were held to just 2.5 yards per carry. The Tar Heels will provide the Cavaliers their toughest test on the ground so far in 2020.
The pass defense is the weak spot on that side of the ball for UVA. The 322 yards allowed through the air against Miami bumped their average allowance on the season to 277 yards per game, placing Virginia 13th in the league. There are questions about player availability this week, as starting defensive backs Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson are currently listed as questionable for Saturday.
If these DBs do not play Saturday, it will be a tougher hill to climb for the UVA secondary against Sam Howell and UNC’s many capable targets.
Eight starters on defense return from last year’s squad, but the player to watch on defense is sophomore linebacker Nick Jackson. His career high 16 tackles last week were a key component in the Wahoos’ run defense.