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UNC vs. Virginia Tech: Three Things to Watch

Wait, I feel like I’ve seen this one before...

Florida A&M v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Sometimes it feels like the universe has a sick, twisted sense of humor, and this Saturday’s game is proof of just that. The Tar Heels will once again take on Virginia Tech in the middle of a hurricane making its way through the Triangle, which means that yet again we will get to watch a sloppy, irritating, and wet game. The Hokies will arrive in Chapel Hill with a 2-2 record and wins over Wofford and Boston College, while also possessing L’s delivered to them by Old Dominion and West Virginia. Nothing on paper tells me that the Hokies will have an edge over UNC in bad weather, but there are enough concerns for the Tar Heels that could cause big problems. Yes, many of you already know the big problem.

Let’s go ahead and discuss three things to keep an eye on in this game.

Hurricane ball

As I mentioned in the intro, Hurricane Ian will make its way to North Carolina this weekend, which means the forecast looks terrible for the football game. The last time this happened was also against the Hokies, and they ended up leaving Chapel Hill with a win. I big part of the issue in that game is that UNC was both unable to run the ball, but also their run defense didn’t hold up. These things will be a big factor yet again.

Thankfully when looking across the aisle, Virginia Tech doesn’t exactly look like a world-beating offense on the ground. Since their Week 1 game against Old Dominion, the Hokies have not had a 100-yard rusher, though they did rush over 100 yards a few times as an overall team. West Virginia essentially didn’t let them run the ball at all, holding the Hokies to just 35 yards and zero touchdowns rushing. Obviously UNC’s defense isn’t West Virginia’s defense, but what all of this means is that this could be the Heels’ best chance to take a step forward in stopping the run. Will they actually do it? Well...let’s talk about that.

Can Gene Chizik get through to his guys?

I know it’s cheating to talk about the defense in two sections, but this is too important to glance over. Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik spoke with the media this week about the defense’s issues, and his comments left a lot to be desired. Evan Davis shared a lot of those comments here, but probably the most concerning of them all was his response when what tweaks were needed for the upcoming game against Virginia Tech:

Well, we haven’t really talked about that. We’re still in the mix of evaluating and assessing Virginia Tech. I expect us to play much better Saturday.

One could look at this comment two different ways: first, a more sensible person wouldn’t be alarmed because the Heels are clearly in the middle of evaluating Virginia Tech, and that’s why there is no planned adjustments at the moment. However, when taking into account that he also said during the same presser that you have to be able to adapt and adjust on game day, why did his response sound like they don’t know what adjustments to make? We have all seen the bad eye discipline, players being in the wrong spot, and missed tackles. Wouldn’t it have made sense, at minimum, to point out these things?

I’m in no way, shape, or form saying that Chizik is out of his element and should lose his job like I’ve seen some people say on the internet, because the reality of the situation is it is still really early in the season and UNC is 3-1. However, for a coaching staff that is so visibly mad about the loss to Notre Dame, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence when you get an alley-oop and whiff that badly with your response. Comments to the media do not translate to what is done behind the scenes, so let’s just hope there is more focused urgency to fix things than what we’re seeing/hearing.

Watered-down offense

The best thing that Mack Brown has going for his team is Drake Maye, who was this week’s ACC Rookie of the Week. Despite the rest of the team struggling against Notre Dame, Maye finished the game with 301 passing yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions. It’s good to know that a ho-hum game from Maye looks like a lot of other quarterbacks’ good days, but there’s one big problem: the hurricane.

While Maye is a very talented quarterback, I have a hard time believing that he is going to have a good time this Saturday. That means that UNC’s running backs will need to bounce back from their poor 66-yard rushing performance from last week, which may or may not be a tall ask. Optimistically, it’s easy to look at the 215-yard performance against App State and believe that they can get things back on track by Saturday. However, The Hokies’ game against West Virginia was the first time that they allowed a team to run the ball efficiently: the Mountaineers finished the game with 218 rushing yards, with their leading rushers being CJ Donaldson and Justin Johnson Jr. (106 yards and 83 yards, respectively).

It’s unclear why UNC is currently in a funk with their running backs, but they will need to figure it out before Saturday if they want to win this game. Drake Maye will not be able to throw a soaked football in a windy environment with any kind of respectable efficiency. I hope Pettaway, Hood, and Hampton are ready, because they will need to be the stars of this game for the Heels to come out on top.