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UNC vs. Virginia: X-Factor

The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of bright spots this year, but their ability to stop the run so far has been hard to ignore.

North Carolina State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The North Carolina Tar Heels are just two days away from taking on the Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville. This game will be a tale of two teams, as the Tar Heels haven’t really been challenged a great deal this season with the exception of the Florida State game, which if we’re being honest had more to do with the team itself than it did the Seminoles. On the other side of the field is UVA, who own just one lone win this season against a terrible Duke team. However, it is indeed worth noting that they kept things very close and interesting against 11th-ranked Miami, so this isn’t exactly a team that the Tar Heels can sleep on like they did against FSU (and we know how that ended).

On paper, Saturday night’s matchup is pretty lopsided. The Heels currently have the second-best offense in the ACC as well as the fifth-best defense. As far as Virginia goes, their units rank 10th and 13th respectively. Focusing specifically on defense, the Wahoos have given up an average of 34.75 points per game, which considering the offense that they will take on is a pretty big problem. A large source of their issue has been in the secondary, which Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall was vocal about during Monday’s press conference.

Here is what he said about his secondary, per fellow SB Nation site Streaking The Lawn:

“Our secondary over the past couple of weeks hasn’t been as consistent in their execution or communication, and so big plays have been more than what we would have liked,” Mendenhall stated. “So, execution, execution, execution in the back end will lead to consistency, we just need that to happen sooner rather than later.”

Needless to say, it could be a disaster for the Cavaliers’ defense when UNC comes into town. The Tar Heels have one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the country, and if they are unable to stop him I expect this to be a really high-scoring game. However, if there is one strength that UVA has on defense it is their linebackers. To this point of the season the Cavaliers are ranked fourth in yards allowed per carry, with their best linebacker right now being Nick Johnson. Against Miami he finished the game with a team-high 16 tackles and helped hold the Hurricanes to just 2.5 yards per rush.

With that said, the X-factor for this game against Virginia is going to be how well UNC can establish the run. This season we have seen Phil Longo stay very dedicated to having a balanced offense, but the numbers are pretty far from achieving said goal. As of right now the Heels have ran the ball 217 times this season while only passing the ball 149 times. To Longo’s credit, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams have been outstanding, and until a team can prove that they’re able to stop them, there’s no reason to change much of what he is drawing up for the team. The Tar Heels currently have the second-highest amount of total rushing yards in the county, and are tied for first in touchdowns. However, this will likely be the dynamic duo’s biggest test so far this season, and if they aren’t able to move the chains on the ground, it may be time to consider attacking this struggling secondary as much as possible.

No matter what the game plan ends up being, this should be smooth sailing for the Tar Heels as long as they come to the game ready for a battle. I would love nothing more than to see Carter and Williams show why they are one of the best running back duos in the country, but if they are stifled somehow it will be fun to see Sam Howell rip this defense to shreds with his arm. This is of course how things should go, but we will have to wait and see which version of this team gets off of the bus in Charlottesville Saturday night.