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#19 Virginia Tech at #8 UNC: Game Preview

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

We’re seeing a ranked matchup in Chapel Hill for the first time in years, and it’s a newfound rivalry game to boot: Times are exciting in the UNC football fandom. It has been so long since a ranked UNC team played another ranked team that you can be forgiven for forgetting what it looks like when two good college football teams play against each other, and that’s what this preview is for. Without further ado, let’s get to know this year’s Hokies:

Offense:

Through games against Duke and N.C. State, Virginia Tech has absolutely owned the line of scrimmage. Luke Tenuta and Christian Darrisaw are both excellent tackles, and the interior of the line is strong, mobile, and experienced. They simply paved the Blue Devils’ and Wolfpack’s defensive fronts, especially in the run game, to the tune of 319 rushing yards per game. That’s not even a skewed number; they ran for over 300 yards, on better than 6.5 yards per attempt, against both teams. The offensive line deserves credit, and so too does grad transfer running back Khalil Herbert, who has 312 yards on 12 yards per attempt and is a constant home run threat. Virginia Tech’s quarterbacks also contribute greatly to their run game; Braxton Burmeister has 24 carries and his backup, Quincy Patterson, has come in for some wildcat packages and has 10 carries on the season. Both get about 4-5 yards per carry, but UNC probably won’t see much of either, as this game will feature the return of Hendon Hooker, who led the Hokies last year to an 8-5 record with the help of 123 carries over the course of the season. What I’m saying is that the VT offense features a lot of option that involves the quarterback as a run threat, and the Tar Heel defense is going to have to stay disciplined with their eyes and feet to make sure they don’t let those plays work against them. In the air, the Hokies haven’t done too much but also haven’t needed to do too much thanks to that dominant ground game. Tayvion Robertson is a big play threat at wide receiver but there hasn’t been much consistency there. Hooker last year was a safe and steady, but not overly threatening, quarterback, with 19 touchdowns (not a lot) and just 3 interceptions (notably few), and neither of the backups who have played this year have impressed with their arms. If Tech is forced to air it out to compete in this game, the Heels probably have a distinct advantage.

Defense:

The Hokies have been depleted on defense due to a high-profile COVID-19 opt-out, followed by a COVID-19 breakout in the locker room, and a rash of injuries, leading to a secondary, in particular, that I don’t think has any starters left. That hasn’t stopped them from being decent, but they have shown some holes. The defensive line is pretty stout and effective at getting pressure; the Hokies sacked Duke’s Chase Brice 7 times last week and consistently got pressure with just their defensive front. It’s unclear how much of that was Duke’s offensive line being weak (they’ve allowed 17 sacks in 4 games) and how much of that is legit credit to VT, but it’s something to be wary of, particularly as the UNC line has struggled in pass protection so far. The Hokie linebackers are fine in run support but pretty lacking in coverage, with Dax Hollifield in particular starting to look too slow to play off-ball in any significant capacity - this is a great opportunity for UNC’s running backs and tight end to get some of that underneath hidden yardage that the Tar Heel coaches have been talking about recently. In the secondary is where Tech’s real weakness lies, though, and it’s really no fault of their own. Caleb Farley, one of the best cornerbacks in the country, opted out of the season, and they lost several other secondary members to COVID-19. Some may return this week after their two-week quarantines, but they might not be in game shape and able to play the way they should be. The backups against Duke played hard, and even came up with an interception from a walk-on, but they also had semi-frequent coverage busts and were noticeably gassed by the end of the game. If the line holds up, this could be a serious get-right game for Sam Howell and his receivers, who have so far underperformed expectations.

Other:

Since UNC sent off Bob Beamer with a controversial win in Blacksburg in 2015, there has been plenty of bad blood between these teams, featuring a monsoon game (you know the one), several big recruiting battles (including that of Hollifield!), and desire to be at the top of the ACC Coastal (unfortunately, UNC hasn’t had much claim to this in the past 3 years). A matchup between the two when they’re both ranked really feels like a culmination of all of that, and this might be the most important game UNC’s played since the ACC Championiship just in terms of what the Heels have to gain and to lose from the result. This game is rife with intangibles, at least for the fanbases, and it’s not unlikely that we see this play out on the field. Expect some chippiness on both sides of this one, especially with the return of some fans to Kenan Stadium.

Prediction:

Quality of their opponents aside, Virginia Tech’s run game is legit, and that’s a dangerous thing in college football. Generally speaking, given that the roster has been something like 20 players short, the Hokies have played way over their heads and are well deserving of their top-20 ranking. But this UNC team has been pretty dang good on defense, especially in the run game, thanks to discipline in the front and the linebacking talent, led by Chazz Surratt, to clean it up. Herbert won’t be shut down, probably, but he can’t singlehandedly beat the Heels, either, and in every other facet of the game, I’m seeing a Heels advantage (given that the secondary has gotten healthy in the last week). I think UNC wins a dogfight thanks to its passing game opening up.

Score prediction: UNC 31, VT 25