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UNC vs. Virginia: Game Preview

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Can UNC get on the board in the ACC standings?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After the season opening loss to Virginia Tech, North Carolina bounced back in week two with a comfortable 59-17 win over Georgia State.

Despite the final score, there were still some worrying parts about the performance. Neither of UNC’s lines particularly impressed. The offensive line in particular still had Sam Howell running for his life at points, which is not what you would expect considering the typical talent level difference from ACC to Sun Belt team. A win is a win, but there was still things to work on.

For their sakes, I hope they got that work done, because there’s another tricky game on the horizon.

This week, the Tar Heels will welcome Virginia to Kenan Stadium for an ACC Coastal game. The Cavaliers have started the 2021 season with two fairly comfortable wins over William & Mary and Illinois, allowing just 14 points total. They’re also a team that have had UNC’s number in recent years, taking the last four meetings. They, understandably, are getting a little chippy about that fact.

There’s also reason for them to be confident after their season so far. Last week against Illinois, they put up 556 yards of offense. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw for 405 yards and five touchdowns on 36 attempts. That overall yardage was ever more than what they had done the week prior against FCS William & Mary.

In both cases, but especially against Illinois, the Cavaliers’ main offensive attack has come through the air. Seven of the Cavaliers’ 11 offensive touchdowns this season have been passing ones. That’s not to say they can’t be successful on the ground, however. While they’ve had no one player be a go to back this season (only Wayne Taulapapa against Illinois has received 10 carries in a game), but as a team, they’re going for over five yards a carry on the year. It should be noted that Illinois, the more talented team they’ve faced so far, held them just four yards per carry

As mentioned in a piece here on Tuesday, one of the players who will be willing to run is their quarterback Armstrong. Against Illinois, he was their second leading rusher (albeit at just 31 yards), and he quite famously torched the Heels on the ground last year, putting up 66 yards, which includes the three sacks he took. Meanwhile, Keytaon Thompson, who is listed as a quarterback but does a little bit of everything, had 43 yards himself. This season, he’s putting up over seven yards per rushing attempt so far. UNC has had some troubles with quarterbacks running so far this season, so you’d have to figure that they’ll be some attempts this week.

As for Virginia’s defense, they’ve been pretty stout too. They did about what you would expect against William & Mary, but they were good against Illinois. On the surface, a less than stellar Illinois putting up 337 total yards at nearly five yards a play doesn’t look like especially impressive. However, well over a third of those yards came in the fourth quarter alone, going into which the score was already 35-14.

Their rushing defense has also been solid, but not overwhelming. However, if the North Carolina backs can’t get going again, this could turn into another game of “Sam Howell has to do everything.”

All of that being said, reading into Virginia’s performance against Illinois also gets a huge caveat, as Illinois also lost to UT San Antonio the week before.

On paper, UNC has more talent, but as we saw last year when they also did when these two teams met, that doesn’t necessarily matter. Virginia is a good team, who if UNC doesn’t adjust from the first two games, has the pieces to make this game another frustrating one. You would hope that between adjustments and the Heels would also having some motivation in trying to snap a losing streak against them. Also, we’re notthing if not biased, so we’ll go with a final score of UNC 35, UVA 31. We’ll see.