So now what does everyone think of the Hokies? They’ve played five games, with two losses to Big East teams, a squeaker against Georgia Tech (a team that doesn’t look so hot now) and wins over two cupcakes. North Carolina doesn’t fall into that latter category, making this week’s game a good barometer for just where Virginia Tech stands in the ACC.
Here’s a look at the matchups. Feel free to offer your own thoughts on the game in the comments section below. And be sure to leave your predicted score. We’ll see who has it right after Saturday’s game.
Virginia Tech at North Carolina
- Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.
- When: Saturday, 12:29 p.m.
- TV: ACC Network
- Records: Virginia Tech 3-2, 1-0 ACC; North Carolina 3-2, 0-1 ACC
- Series: Virginia Tech leads 18-10-6
- Last meeting: Hokies won 24-21 last year in Blacksburg
- Line: North Carolina by 5.5
When Virginia Tech passes
Something still didn’t look right with Logan Thomas until the second half last week against Cincinnati (although honestly you could say that about the whole team). But he was 10-for-17 for 205 yards a touchdown and an interception in the second half. That pick was costly, though. He’s throw five of his six interceptions in Tech’s two losses. Marcus Davis had 101 receiving yards last week, his second 100-yard effort his year. But he was nearly invisible for a half. Tech will need to involve him more. That goes for Dyrell Roberts and Corey Fuller too. Both made plays last week, so they have the capability. The line, for all the hits it has taken, only gave up one sack last week to Cincinnati’s difficult front seven. That’s an improvement.
They’ll need to be on their game against North Carolina’s active pass rush. The Tar Heels have 14 sacks this year, tied for 22nd nationally. Tackle Sylvester Williams has been a beast, with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss so far. Kareem Martin has two sacks and seven tackles for a loss. North Carolina’s pass defense looks good on paper, ranking 33rd nationally by giving up 200.4 yards per game. But those stats are skewed by performances against lesser competition. Wake Forest threw for 362 yards against this team. Louisville had 279 and three touchdowns. The secondary is young, with two juniors, a sophomore and a redshirt freshman, but the Tar Heels have been ballhawks, with seven interceptions through five games (granted, four of them came against lowly Idaho). If the Virginia Tech passing game from the second half of the Cincinnati game shows up, the Hokies have a chance to move the ball here.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
Michael Holmes began to show why coaches think he can be a featured back. He ran for 60 yards against Cincinnati, 48 of which came on a fourth quarter drive that ended with him getting into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. Thomas (129 yards, 3 TDs this year) is a threat as well, and J.C. Coleman showed spurts of what he can do last week when in the game. Of course, there was also the first-half ground game last week, which produced 35 yards on 13 carries. It’s truly a Jekyll-and-Hyde offense. The key, of course, is the offensive line. Tech had an interior group of Michael Via (LG), Caleb Farris (C) and Brent Benedict (RG) in the fourth quarter and moved the ball well. From the sounds of it, it might be David Wang (LG), Andrew Miller (C) and Via (RG) to start this week. Until that group finds some kind of consistency, it’ll be tough sledding.
UNC has been especially strong in stopping the run, allowing 96.5 yards per game, the 16th fewest nationally. That’s been more consistent than the pass defense. Only Louisville (183 yards) has really been able to move the ball against the Tar Heels’ front. Carolina has held three opponents this year to fewer than three yards a carry (Elon, Wake Forest, Idaho) and another to 3.3 (East Carolina). Linebacker Kevin Reddick has been strong in the front seven, with 30 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss. UNC’s defensive line has been an active group here too. The team has 43 tackles for a loss through five games, an average that ranks fifth nationally. Tech will have its hands full keeping the Tar Heels out of the backfield on runs.
Edge: North Carolina
When North Carolina passes
Quarterback Bryn Renner has taken to new coach Larry Fedora‘s hurry-up, spread offense. The junior is completing 63.8 percent of his passes this year for 1, 422 yards and 14 touchdowns to four interceptions. That’s 284.4 yards per game. And he’ll spread it around. Seven Carolina players have at least nine catches this year. Six have at least two receiving touchdowns. Erik Highsmith, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior, is the most-targeted receiver with 23 catches for 243 yards and a pair of scores. But six receivers are averaging between 37.3 and 55.4 yards per game, including running back Giovani Bernard (12 catches, 112 yards, 2 TD) and tight end Eric Ebron (17 catches, 277 yards, 3 TD). So it’s clear that UNC has no qualms about throwing to everybody.
That’s bad news for a Virginia Tech team light in capable pass defenders. Cincinnati exploited that last week when Kyle Fuller came out of the game because of cramps. Donaldven Manning quickly gave up two passes for 59 yards, one of which went for a touchdown. There’s not much help on the way. The Hokies will have to go with what they have. Right now, that group is Fuller and Antone Exum at corner, Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner at safety and Michael Cole in a nickel addition. That group gave up 392 passing yards last week to a Cincinnati team that wasn’t known for its passing (partly due to Tech’s coverage choices). It’ll be interesting to see if Bud Foster leaves his cornerbacks on an island as frequently this week. The d-line will need to get going. It put pressure on the quarterback last week but still has only seven sacks in five games.
Edge: North Carolina
When North Carolina runs
Bernard has battled a knee injury this year, missing the Wake Forest and Louisville games. Not coincidentally, the Tar Heels lost both of those contests. When he’s played, he’s been dynamic. The sophomore is averaging 7.3 yards per carry and has four touchdowns. But UNC has other rushers. A.J. Blue has 257 yards and four touchdowns; Romar Morris has 235 and one score. All are averaging 5.1 yards per carry or better. That’s a testament to North Carolina’s offensive line with four returning starters, which includes a pair of second-team All-ACC picks last year, guard Jonathan Cooper and tackle James Hurst. Don’t be fooled into thinking Fedora’s offense is all passing. His Southern Miss crew last year ranked 20th nationally in rushing. The Tar Heels this year rank 53rd nationally, but are averaging 172.6 rushing yards per game, which is fourth in the ACC.
Virginia Tech is 75th nationally in rushing defense, giving up 168.2 yards per game. But the game plan against Cincinnati was to eliminate the run first, and the Hokies executed that part nearly flawlessly. The Bearcats finished with 103 rushing yards, averaging 3.32 yards per carry. Inside linebackers Jack Tyler (11 tackles, .5 TFL) and Bruce Taylor (7 tackles, 1 TFL) had what Foster described as “monster games.” The d-line, particularly Derrick Hopkins (4 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack), was a big reason for that success too, preventing Cincinnati from getting to the edge. That group will have its work cut out for it this week, but it might have a chance. Sixty-one percent of UNC’s rushing yards this year came against Elon and Idaho, so its stats are somewhat misleading.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for Virginia Tech this year has been punter A.J. Hughes, who had boots of 55, 56, and 57 yards against Cincinnati last week. His 41.29-yard average is now sixth in the ACC, which is far more than the Hokies could have hoped for a true freshman. Cody Journell is 5-for-6 on field goals. Jarrett’s 25.1-yard punt return average is third nationally, and Tech’s coverage teams, particularly Alonzo Tweedy (9 special teams tackles), have been outstanding. The kick return team (20.92 avg., 69th nationally) remains average.
North Carolina has been solid here too. Punter Tommy Hibbard is averaging 42.2 yards per punt. Kicker Casey Barth is 7-for-8. The Heels, thanks to Roy Smith and Bernard, are averaging 14.8 yards per punt return, 19th nationally. Although their kick returns have been average too, their coverage teams have been great. UNC is allowing only .83 yards per return, fifth nationally (doing it mostly by only allowing six returns all year). The kick coverage team ranks 27th nationally, about where Virginia Tech is.
Frank Beamer has a tendency to have teams that perform poorly in early season, non-conference games, but he usually gets the ship righted for ACC play. This might be one of his toughest challenges, with Tech having lost twice before the end of September for only the third time the last 17 years Of course, the other two times that happened (’04, ’10), the Hokies won the ACC, so there’s that. Fedora seems to have the Heels on the right track right now, even though they’re ineligible to win the ACC or play in the postseason this year because of NCAA sanctions. The Tar Heels don’t play Florida State or Clemson this year, so Virginia Tech and Miami in a few weeks are their biggest games. They should be properly amped. But, based on Foster’s, ahem … enthusiasm earlier this week, I’m inclined to think the Hokies coaches will have their team ready to play.
Edge: Virginia Tech
I expect Virginia Tech to come out and play this week. I don’t think the Hokies are as out of sorts as they’ve shown in the first month. Plus, consider they are 13-0 in ACC games in the state of North Carolina since joining the league in 2004. And honestly, I don’t think North Carolina (which is 0-1 in the league, by the way), has arrived quite as much as everyone seems to think (UNC has gone from a 2-point favorite to open up to 5.5). It’s why I’m predicting another close game. That said, the Tar Heels can pass the ball efficiently, something that the Hokies have had trouble slowing down. I expect both passing offenses to be able to have some success, but North Carolina’s is a little more refined right now and has played at a more consistently high level. I say Tech’s secondary depth catches up to it again, especially with UNC wanting to push the pace. That’ll be the difference in the second half of a close game.
Prediction: North Carolina 27, Virginia Tech 23.