Coming into the season, many pegged this game as a sure-fire win for the Tar Heels. Last season, the Cavaliers finished just 2-10 overall and their only ACC win came again Duke. However, this season, they have started on a quiet 4-1 run with wins over William and Mary, UConn, Boise State, and Duke. The only blemish on their record is an early loss to Indiana.
The Tar Heels haven’t been as lucky. Through a bevy of injuries and a mixture of poor play and questionable coaching, North Carolina limps into Saturday with a 1-5 record. Let’s get the injury update out of the way quickly (which might not be too quick because it seems to grow with each passing week). North Carolina’s “Out for the Season” total sits at 14 players. Add six more players into that mix that are considered “Questionable” for this weekend (including Tom Sheldon, the obvious 2017 MVP who left the Notre Dame game early with an apparent injury to his leg). This team is true embodiment of the “Next Man Up” moniker.
North Carolina Offense vs Virginia Defense:
Virginia has been quietly good on the defensive side of the ball. Guys like Micah Kiser (five sacks) and Chris Peace (three sacks) seem to always find themselves in the backfield while others like Juan Thornhill (two interceptions), Brenton Nelson (two interceptions), and Quin Blanding (pick-six versus Duke) are keeping quarterbacks honest downfield.
The Cavaliers find themselves in the top 30s in most of the major defensive statistical categories. They are 24th in Total Defense, giving up just under 330 total yards per game. They are holding teams to only 130 rushing yards and under 200 yards passing per game. Teams are only converting 27% of third downs and 38% of fourth downs against this defense. They are giving up 21 points per game, but the offense has been scoring at a high enough pace to outscore their opponents.
On the other hand, the North Carolina offense can’t seem to do much of anything. Averaging 375 yards per game, the Tar Heels are ranked at 89th in Total Offense. The rushing game still hasn’t found it’s stride as they are ranked at 94th by averaging just over 130 yards per game. Jordon Brown (65 carries; 297 yards) has emerged as the feature back, while Michael Carter (48 carries; 231 yards) plays his relief. Chazz Surratt also finds himself contributing to the running game (69 carries; 179 yards).
The passing game is this offense’s forte with 240 yards per game, but even that stalls way too many times. Surratt has just under 1,200 yards on 100 completions with a nearly 60% completion rate. Anthony Ratliff-Williams has taken on the role as the number one receiver and is doing well with 16 receptions for 256 yards.
However, multiple drives this season have ended as three-and-outs and North Carolina can’t keep a tired defense off of the field. As it sits, the offense is converting a paltry 30% of their third downs. That’s 121st in the nation (out of 130, mind you). This doesn’t bode well for this offense with the strength of the Cavalier defense on third and fourth downs.
Virginia Offense vs. North Carolina Defense:
The Cavaliers’ offense is built around the passing game. Kurt Benkert has completed 64% of his passes for over 1,400 yards in five games. He’s tossed 13 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Needless to say, he’s very careful where he puts the ball. In each of Virginia’s four wins, Benkert has thrown three touchdown passes. His favorite targets include Olamide Zaccheaus (38 receptions; 348 yards; three touchdowns), Doni Dowling (24 receptions; 327 yards; four touchdowns), and Andre Levrone (15 receptions; 377 yards; four touchdowns). The rushing offense doesn’t have near the output as it averages just 120 yards per game. However, the rushing game has produced seven touchdowns, so the ability to score is there.
The Virginia offense is also adept at extending drives. They are currently 10th in third down conversions at 49.4%. Even on fourth downs, Virginia is able to convert it 42% of the time. These extended drives lead to tired and worn out defenses that give up points and the Cavaliers are currently scoring just over 30 points per game. Virginia is eighth in the FBS in time of possession controlling the ball almost 34 minutes per game. Compare that to the Tar Heels who are 119th in time of possession with just over 26 minutes.
Looking over to the North Carolina defense does not make things look much better. The Tar Heels are giving up over 470 yards of offense per game this season. On average, teams are able to eclipse the 200 yard mark in both passing (228 yards) and rushing (242 yards). This defense also can’t seem to get off of the field in critical situations giving up over 40% of third down conversions and 75% of fourth down conversions.
The thing is, over the last few weeks, the defense has made its stands. Last week, North Carolina forced Notre Dame to punt on their first two possessions and stopped the Irish short on fourth down on their third possession. Even after Notre Dame scored two touchdowns, the Tar Heels’ defense finished the half strong (punt, punt, interception, punt). In the second half, however, the defense couldn’t get off of the field and eventually wore out. Notre Dame was able to score on three of their final six possessions (and could have possibly scored once more, but elected to take a knee to end the game).
Once a game many considered a sure victory has turned to anything but. Virginia has quietly reeled off a 4-1 record while North Carolina is sputtering at 1-5. The match ups do not favor the Tar Heels, but this could be the game that everything gets on track. However, since the Cavaliers played a close match with Duke last weekend, and the Tar Heels are looking for some kind of spark, I think the game stays close.
In the end, North Carolina squeaks out their second win of the season by the closest of margins; UNC 24 - UVA 21