North Carolina is smack dab in the middle of its most important stretch of the season. Facing—and beating—three ranked teams in three consecutive weeks can vault this team to even greater heights in the conference. The Heels already handled the Seminoles in Tallahassee, but the next two games are just as crucial.
Virginia Tech comes to town with a somewhat surprising top 25 ranking, and the Hokies are desperate for a statement win. UNC has won its last two games with some late-game magic. Similar theatrics and play will be more difficult against Tech, who has a strong, formidable defense. Here are the players who can change the game in favor of their teams on Saturday.
Virginia Tech Player to Watch: Wide receiver Isaiah Ford
North Carolina has been decent thus far in limiting wide receivers. Yes, they’ve struggled in containing running backs with pass-catching ability (64 receiving yards for Pitt’s James Conner and 106 for FSU’s Dalvin Cook). Virginia Tech’s Travon McMillian doesn’t have the same abilities as those two running backs coming out of the backfield, so the receivers will have to pick up the slack.
Enter six-foot-two junior wideout Isaiah Ford. He’s one of the best, lesser-known players in the ACC, and he seems to be rounding into form at the perfect time for Virginia Tech. Ford has three touchdowns in his last two games and has shown some valuable deep-threat ability with multiple catches over 40 yards recently. Simply, Ford is the best playmaker on the Hokies and, when facing an offense like UNC’s, playmakers like him need to show up to keep their team in the game.
Against other top receivers, Carolina has been solid. The Heels limited FSU’s Travis Rudolph to one catch, but Jesus Wilson had six catches for 120 yards (Wilson’s one of two receivers to get 100 yards on the Heels). Only one Pitt player had more than 22 yards receiving. Clearly, the pass defense hasn’t been as big of a concern as other areas of the defense.
The weather will surely be a factor, but the passing game can’t entirely be forgotten. For the Hokies to stay with the Heels for four quarters, they need to make big completions and score touchdowns. Ford offers the best chance at doing just that. And, if UNC can actually stop Ford, we may be looking at a team that can handle any wide receiver group in the conference.
UNC Player to Watch: Running back T.J. Logan
With Elijah Hood potentially still hobbled after leaving the FSU game last week, T.J. Logan immediately becomes one of the keys to the game. A lot of disappointment has focused on Hood, while praise and adoration has washed over Logan. Both perceptions aren’t exactly accurate, but the ground game is still essential for UNC.
Logan has become something of a touchdown machine this year: He leads the team with five on the ground, is tied for third with two in the air and has one kickoff return touchdown. Eight scores in five games is a stellar mark. He’s as versatile a back as there is in the country, and he can hurt the opposition in so many different ways.
But, for this game, he might be asked to do something he hasn't yet. It’s unclear if Hood is still injured and how much it might affect him, so Logan could be expected to get the lion’s share of carries. He held up fine against FSU, finishing with 10 carries for 77 yards. If Hood can’t give it his best go, though, Logan will need to carry the ball more than 10 times for a UNC win. It remains to be seen if he can hold up with that kind of workload over four quarters.
The weather is another interesting factor that again stresses the need for a consistent, bludgeoning Carolina ground attack. It should be rainy and windy, and this might be the first time in a few weeks that the UNC passing game suffers. A potentially sloppy, dirty game like this means Logan needs to step up and run the ball effectively. If the weather is as awful as it seems like it could be, Carolina will have a difficult time winning with Mitch Trubisky throwing so much—well, unless he is actually the best quarterback in the country.
Finally, the Hokies also sport one of the better run defenses in the country. They are top 25 in the nation, giving up just 113.5 rushing yards per game. Carolina averages 136 yards per game on the ground. That number is much lower than many predicted heading into the season. For this kind of game, the Heels probably need to be much higher than that. If Logan can keep up his yards-per-carry average while getting double-digit carries, as well as scoring once or twice, UNC is hard to beat.