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UNC at Virginia: Three Things to Watch

Is tomorrow the night the Heels’ passing game comes fully to life?

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to yet another iteration of The South’s Oldest Rivalry, this time with a spooky twist! The Cavaliers of the University of Virginia have a 3-game winning streak against the Carolina Tar Heels, but this time, they’re 1-4 and preparing to face a 4-1 Heels squad that’s ranked 15th in the country. UNC will visit the Hoos for a primetime Halloween matchup that features two teams with radically different experiences so far this year. Here are some things you might want to look for on the good guys’ side of things:

UNC’s Passing Game Opening Up

UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo maintains that his playcalling is totally up to game script and opponents’ tendencies, and that he’s just going to call according to what defenses are giving him. I don’t know how much I buy this, but tomorrow night might be the truest test we’ve gotten, because Virginia so far has had a very robust rushing defense and a very leaky pass defense. Longo has so far survived (well, except in Tallahassee) while leaning on the run game even against common wisdom because UNC’s run blocking and duo of running backs have been so good that common wisdom doesn’t really apply to them. Prior to the FSU game, handing off to Michael Carter and Javonte Williams was more efficient than 90% of teams passing the ball, and while that figure has probably come down to Earth a little bit in the past couple of weeks, it’s still probably true for at least 34 of FBS. Virginia might have a strong enough front to make that stat look even less impressive, but they definitely don’t have the chops to stop an aerial attack the caliber of the one Sam Howell and co. can provide. So far, the UNC passing offense has shown flashes of being elite but has overall been pretty capped just by the lack of attempts relative to how good Howell is. Last year, Dyami Brown absolutely feasted on the Cavaliers’ defense to the tune of 202 yards and 3 touchdowns. Dazz Newsome has been quiet so far this season, but not for lack of play so much as lack of opportunity. Will this be his chance, and the passing game’s generally to really break out and announce their arrival into this season?

Handling Running Quarterbacks

Since the loss of the one-man offense machine that was Bryce Perkins, UVA has struggled so far this season to really find an identity at the quarterback position. Brennan Armstrong is the nominal starter, but he’s been shaky this year with just 7 touchdowns to 6 interceptions and just a 55% completion rate. His backup, Lindell Stone, played the last game and a half due to Armstrong suffering a concussion, and mostly dinked and dunked his way to similarly mediocre stats. But both of them are pretty potent runners, with Armstrong having 45 rushes on the year so far for 268 yards, or almost 53 yards per game at a nearly 7 YPC clip. Bronco Mendenhall also employs a fair bit of wildcat with his third-and fourth-string quarterbacks, who nearly always run when they’re in the game - they’ve combined for 5 passes and 25 rushing attempts through these five games. UNC’s defense has struggled with running quarterbacks since they became prevalent in the ACC, and while Jay Bateman has improved a lot of things about the way UNC plays defense, that’s not quite an area he’s figured out how to shore up with the talent on the roster just yet. You never know what to expect from Bateman week-on-week, though, so might this be the week we see UNC start to contain a quarterback like Armstrong (and his backups)?

Return Game Improvement

I’m not going to mention the kicker situation here, because that’s its own beast. But UNC’s return game against NCSU looked about the best it’s been so far this year, on both sides of the ball. That’s not a fantastic bar: Michael Carter returned one short kickoff for 24 yards, which is good, and Dazz Newsome returned one punt for 8 yards, which is decent. And in punt coverage, the Heels only allowed one punt return on 3 punts to the dangerous Thayer Thomas, who was held to 11 yards. Mack Brown mentioned after the game that UNC’s punt return blocking squad particularly has to start getting in position better for Newsome to be able to do his thing, and I suspect that will have been a point of emphasis in a short week of practice after so many other things went right against NCSU. Virginia’s kicking specialists aren’t very good, so this might be a team that allows a lot of returns if UNC’s defense can force punts. It’s a prime position for one of UNC’s most hidden abilities to become uncovered if the team can just play complementary football.