The North Carolina Tar Heels will face a tough challenge on Saturday when Virginia Tech travels to Chapel Hill.
The past two games against UNC’s Coastal Division rival were decided by a total of five points, even with the lowly 2018 team.
In those games, both teams were unranked. This year, expectations are higher as the two teams are undefeated and ranked in the Top 25.
As mentioned yesterday on Tar Heel Blog, the primary focus of this game will be the running game. With Virginia Tech averaging over 300 yards on the ground per game this season, can the Tar Heels contain their rushing attack? Is UNC as good as their top-ranked run defense makes them out to be?
The presumption is that the game will be won or loss based on the matchup. However, here are three things that will influence the final score.
Connecting with the Deep Ball
The down-field explosiveness of the Carolina offense of 2019 has not emerged thus far in 2020.
There are a handful of potential factors for this, including more tape on Sam Howell and the receiving corps and an offensive line that needs improvement.
Even though the running back duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter executed in the run game, a stretched field will only help their performances.
Virginia Tech has been struggling with COVID-related personnel issues. Last week, the Hokies were missing 21 players, and the team reported missing their top five defensive backs.
The final rosters for the game will not be released before writing, and those could change anyways because of final COVID testing on Friday.
At any rate, VT may be missing those defensive backs again this week. Or, if they are in the lineup, the secondary will be seeing its first game action of the season against a talented UNC offense.
In either case, the Tar Heels have an opportunity to attack down the field. Perhaps all Howell and the receivers need is to have some success to regain their deep ball mojo.
Second Half Touchdowns and the Red Zone
There was a surprising statistic at the conclusion of the Boston College game last week. According to Adam Lucas, “Saturday’s second half marked just the second time in the last 25 halves of football that the Tar Heels have failed to score a touchdown.”
There are a couple reasons this is a critical point for Saturday’s game.
First, Virginia Tech is not a defensive juggernaut thus far in the post-Bud Foster era. The Hokies are right in the middle of the conference in total defense, allowing almost double the number of points per game as the UNC defense.
The most concerning statistic for VT is their red zone defense. In 2020, every time an opponent has entered the red zone against the Hokies, a touchdown is scored. Virginia Tech has allowed four passing touchdowns and two rushing TDs in the opposition’s six red zone trips this season.
The Tar Heel offense is batting 1.000 in red zone scoring. In seven red zone trips this season, Carolina has scored four rushing touchdowns, one through the air, and hit two field goals.
Next, that statistic from Lucas shows how the offense has performed over the long-term. Touchdowns, especially in the red zone, has been a point of emphasis for head coach Mack Brown.
In the new Mack Brown era, the UNC offense has been able to find the end zone at least once a half in most of their games. Scoring touchdowns rather than settling for field goals is a critical element in a Top 25 matchup.
In this matchup, second half touchdowns will be a key point. A touchdown or two could have ended the Boston College game sooner than what occurred with the offense settling for field goals.
The Tar Heels will need to score touchdowns in the second half against Virginia Tech. And they should have some opportunities to do so.
So far in 2020, VT is allowing 27.5 points per game. Of the 55 total points allowed by the Hokies, 38 were scored in the second half of the games.
If Virginia Tech is missing a good number of players again this week, the Tar Heels should have the depth in the second half to have the Hokies chasing them. UNC must take advantage of this and make the offensive drives account for seven on each trip.
The offensive line remains the biggest concern for Carolina. The line has allowed six sacks in two games, and Howell continues to be hit and hurried.
The fair catch-hit-interception-touchdown sequence in the second quarter of the Boston College game was a turning point in that game.
Simply put, the offensive line must step up their game this weekend or it will be a long day for Howell.
Despite their overall defensive mediocrity, Virginia Tech is second in the nation with 13 sacks in just two games. Led by Emmanuel Belmar, the defensive line of VT is the strength of their defense.
Will Joshua Ezeudu make his first appearance of 2020? His introduction into the lineup may not be the silver bullet for UNC’s woes on the offensive line, but he can certainly help.