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UNC Football vs. Virginia Tech: X-Factor

How will the defense handle the Hokie running attack?

North Carolina v Boston College Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On Saturday, two of the best units in the country will face off against each other: the run defense of the North Carolina Tar Heels and the rushing offense of Virginia Tech.

The Tar Heels boast the top run defense in the country, allowing just an average of 54 rushing yards per game.

Against Syracuse, the Heels allowed less than two yards per carry on 35 attempts. Boston College was known to be pass-heavy, but were still held to just 2.1 yards per rushing attempt.

Heading into this week’s nooner against the Hokies, it is clear that Virginia Tech will run the ball, and they will do it well. VT ranks third in the nation with an average of 319 rushing yards per game.

VT grad transfer Khalil Herbert is on fire so far in 2020. In just two games, Herbert has gained 312 yards on the ground with three touchdowns. Last week against Duke, he gained 208 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns, including a long of 60 yards. Additionally, Herbert return three kicks for 150 yards that included a 83-yard return.

As for the quarterback situation for Virginia Tech, Braxton Burmeister has started in replace of preseason starter Hendon Hooker. Hooker, who was said to have a “medical scare,” will make his first appearance of 2020 this week against the Tar Heels.

Burmeister has struggled with the passing attack, but has done a good job on the ground. On 24 attempts, Burmeister has gained 100 yards and punched in two touchdowns. With Hooker retaking his responsibilities under center, he will be expected to remain a dual-threat quarterback like he was in his productive 2019 season - the Hokies have no shortage of quarterbacks who can run.

Even with the talent of Herbert and Hooker, the Virginia Tech offensive line has been the driving force behind the success of the Hokie offense.

Virginia Tech has a talented, experienced, and deep group of offensive linemen. VT starts two redshirt juniors, one junior, one redshirt sophomore, and one sophomore, and several of them are already getting NFL buzz. Behind them, three redshirt seniors, a redshirt junior, and a sophomore are ready to step up.

This Hokie offensive line has allowed just four sacks and nine tackles for loss on the season. The Tar Heels defense eclipsed both of those numbers in the first game, against Syracuse.

With a total of 12 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss on the season, will the UNC front seven maintain that type of pressure against Virginia Tech?

It will be a tough task, considering the size and experience of the VT o-line. The Tar Heels will have to do two things to maintain their top-ranked run defense.

First, Tomari Fox, Ray Vohasek, Jahlil Taylor, and any other down defensive player cannot get pushed off the line. Virginia Tech has done a great job so far this season controlling the line, creating both time and space for their skill players. If the Tar Heels are back on their heels, it could be a long day for the UNC defenders.

Second, Chazz Surratt, Jeremiah Gemmel, Tomon Fox, and others at the second level must get into their run fits properly, to ensure that if the run is not stuffed at the line, the carrier is taken down before he can get to the second level.

Against Boston College, there were simply too many missed tackles and arm tackle attempts by the defense, mostly on quarterback Phil Jurkovec. Hopefully, part of this was the long break between the two games. Additionally, most of these missed tackles were in space against a retreating opponent, which makes tackling harder. But make no mistake, arm tackles are not going to work with the likes of Herbert and Hooker. UNC must get back to the fundamentals — wrap up and drive your hips.

The Tar Heels may not be able to stop Virginia Tech’s rushing attack, but they must contain it and limit the breakout plays. The game on Saturday will be won in the trenches. Are the Tar Heels ready for their biggest test of the season?