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UNC vs. Virginia: X-Factor

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Let’s be honest: if the run game doesn’t get fixed, we’re in trouble.

NCAA Football: Georgia St. at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers will be coming into town this weekend coming off of a hot 2-0 start to the season. They opened their 2021 campaign with decisive wins against Williams & Marry and Illinois, and so the Tar Heels will easily be the toughest game for them so far. This may not necessarily be the case for UNC on paper, as getting Virginia Tech on the road was a really tough way to kick off the season. However, the problem is that UNC hasn’t beaten UVA since 2016, which is…a pretty trash statistic, for lack of a better way to put it. Despite coming really close to ending the losing streak last season, the Heels need to find a way to finally get the monkey off of their backs this weekend, but I believe there’s only one way that they will be able to accomplish that.

UNC has to find a way to get the run game going, and honestly, it doesn’t matter who it comes from as long as their name isn’t Sam Howell.

Don’t get me wrong: Howell has been fantastic, despite inducing dangerous levels of stress every time he absorbs contact from defenders. In the game against Georgia State, Howell ran the ball 11 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns, which easily passed the next rusher on the stat sheet in Ty Chandler. The Tennessee transfer finished the game with more carries (15), but only logged 58 yards and a wide open touchdown that came from a pitch to the weak side. While I can sit here and say that Georgia State wasn’t exactly a pushover and that their front seven played the Heels tough, the reality is that Howell looking much better than the running backs when carrying the ball is a huge problem. Sam Howell is good, but he’s no Lamar Jackson. Mack Brown must find a way to get production out of Chandler, British Brooks, or Caleb Hood.

The danger that the Heels will face if they are unable to run the ball is dealing with UVA’s defense pinning their ears back and getting into Sam Howell’s face all night long. Even worse than that, it sounds like the Cavaliers’ secondary has been playing really well. If they are indeed legitimate, Howell is already going to have a hard time getting the ball out of his hands, and the offensive line has already had a hard time keeping him clean so far. My hope is that Mack Brown and Phil Longo have been working hard on figuring out how to get something, anything, going on the ground, and that they open the game by trying to run the ball down the Cavaliers’ throats immediately.

I’ll leave y’all with Phil Longo’s thoughts on how the run game actually improved during the game against Georgia State:

“The improvement from game one to game two was very noticeable. We did a better job of blocking at the second level, there were no communication issues, there was a lot more continuity, and I think that we’ll play even better this week up front in game three, just because we’re progressing. Some of the issues in game one were erased in game two. And in game two, we had an opportunity to break some tackles and we didn’t. We had an opportunity to hit some holes a little bit differently and some of them we did, some of them we didn’t.

Let’s hope you are right, Longo. Otherwise it’s about to be a long night in Kenan.