As I mentioned in that post, the Hokies’ injury report is out. Only wide receiver Willie Byrn (knee) is on it. He’s probable.
North Carolina at Virginia Tech
- Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg (65,632)
- When: 12:30 p.m., Saturday
- TV: ACC Network
- Records: North Carolina (1-3, 0-1 ACC), Virginia Tech (4-1, 1-0 ACC)
- Series: Hokies lead 18-11-6
- Last meeting: North Carolina won 48-34 last year in Chapel Hill
- Line: Virginia Tech by 7.5
When Virginia Tech passes
Logan Thomas had his most accurate passing day in almost a year, completing 76 percent of his passes (76 percent). That was the second highest completion percentage of his career, behind only his near perfect 23-for-25 day against Miami in 2011.Thomas had a 9-for-9 streak to start the game, aided by a few nice catches by his receivers (Sam Rogers‘ one-handed snag and Demitri Knowles‘ downfield catch got him going early). Both Knowles and Josh Stanford made some nice catches in big spots. D.J. Coles had a touchdown grab. And Byrn, who sprained his knee, should be a go (he’s probable), giving the Hokies a receiving corps that’s probably playing as well as it has all year. Add in Kalvin Cline, who is now the top tight end option, and Tech might be able to do some things in the air. Georgia Tech brought some pressure to get to Thomas last week for a couple sacks, but the Hokies have generally done a good job in pass protection. Still, it’s not as though the Hokies are lighting up the scoreboard here.
The Tar Heels’ overall pass defense numbers don’t look terrible, although I suspect part of that is because they’ve already played Georgia Tech. Against a capable passing attack last wee, UNC was torched by East Carolina for 376 yards in the air. Looking at the overall stats, the Heels’ pass efficiency defense (135.89, 80th nationally) is worse than their yardage allowed (225.3 ypg, 60th). Safety Tre Boston is probably UNC’s best player on the back end. He has 21 tackles and two interceptions. But the Heels just haven’t been very effective at stopping the pass. They have only six sacks through four games, three of which are by defensive end Norkeithus Otis. The other end Kareem Martin has one sack. Their four interceptions are in the lower half of the ACC and they’ve allowed seven passing touchdowns.
When Virginia Tech runs
The Hokies haven’t been consistent on the ground so far, with blocking issues, some poor reads and defenses attempting to stack the box. The results have been a roller coaster. The Hokies ran for 153 yards against Alabama, then only 53 against East Carolina. They went for 201 against Marshall, then only 55 against Georgia Tech. Thomas has shouldered a big portion of the run game lately, with 39 carries for 116 yards and three touchdowns the last two weeks. But he’s taken a pounding doing it. He’s dealing with an ab strain and sprained his foot, enough to require him to wear a walking boot earlier this week. Tech will need to shift some of the rushing load to the running backs just to keep Thomas healthy. They’ve been a mixed bag too. Trey Edmunds, who seems fine after suffering a hip injury against Marshall, has two 100-yard games this year, but he’s also disappeared at times. He had six carries for 1 yards last week. A lot of that is on the o-line. Tech has rushed for 3.9 yards per carry this year, which is in the bottom half of the ACC.
This might be the defense to get healthy against, however. The Tar Heels have been gouged on the ground this year, allowing 234.5 yards per game, which ranks 112th nationally. ECU, which finished with 46 rushing yards against the Hokies, ran for 227 yards and four touchdowns last week against UNC. Part of that might be a lack of leadership on the defense. Lineman Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick are both gone from last year. They were the leaders of that group, and even then, UNC had its struggles. Linebackers Travis Hughes and Jeff Schoettmer lead the way statistically with 31 tackles apiece. But the Heels don’t seem to be making many plays in the backfield. They have 22 tackles for a loss through four games, 85th nationally. Opponents are averaging 4.57 yards per rush against them. Nobody in the ACC is allowing more. If Virginia Tech wants to get its running backs going, this seems like the game to do it. This is a lesser of two evils pick.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When North Carolina passes
Bryn Renner hasn’t been quite the passer he was last year, but he’s still been very good. The senior has thrown for 279.2 yards per game, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions, but his completion percentage is down about five points to just under 60 percent for the first time in his career. He still has weapons. Receiver Quinshad Davis (13 catches, 204 yards, 3 TD) is a game-breaker, and Eric Ebron (17 catches, 263 yards, TD) might be the best tight end in the country. The question isn’t the passing game’s competency. It’s whether the o-line can give Renner and Co. time. Renner’s been sacked nine times in four game. East Carolina had three last week. South Carolina had three in the opener. The Heels lost some big-time talent on the offensive line from last year, with three players being drafted (including Jacobs Blocking Trophy recipient Jonathan Cooper). That is a bigger deal than most people think.
It’s sure to have the Virginia Tech defensive line licking its chops. The Hokies have 17 sacks this year, tied for the second most nationally. End J.R. Collins still leads the way with 4.5 sacks, although there are six players on the team with at least two sacks this season. That’s been as big a reason as any for Tech’s success in stopping the pass (138.2 ypg, 5th nationally). The other is the secondary, which has been rock solid despite its youth and ball-hawking to boot (11 picks). The weeklong drama about what to do with cornerback Brandon Facyson ended yesterday, when Tech announced he would start. Bud Foster told Frank Beamer‘s website that Antone Exum still has some reservations about his knee, at least enough to not play starter’s minutes. He’ll probably make spot duty. (UPDATE: he won’t dress at all for Saturday’s game, saying he wants to give the knee more time.) The Hokies have a tall task in stopping Ebron. Safety Detrick Bonner has had his issues in pass coverage. He and nickelback Kendall Fuller are bound to end up Ebron quite a bit Saturday. They’ll need to limit that threat.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When North Carolina runs
The Tar Heels sure do miss Giovani Bernard. His replacements, A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have been OK. Blue has 176 yards and a 4.1-yard average and Morris 169 yard and a 4.7-yard average to go with three touchdowns, although neither is the dynamic player that Bernard was. Hokies fans certainly remember Bernard rumbling for 262 of the Tar Heels’ 339 rushing yards last year. Neither Blue nor Morris has topped 69 yards in a game this year, however. UNC is averaging 3.02 yards per carry, worst in the ACC and over two yards per carry worse than last year. Again, so much of that depends on the o-line, which starts a sophomore and two redshirt freshmen. Those three have combined to make 16 career starts, so it’s a very young group. But when you lose an NFL back and three NFL-caliber offensive linemen, your rushing game is bound to take a major step back.
There can’t be a more motivated group in this game than Virginia Tech’s front seven, which is still embarrassed by last year’s gutting. The way the Hokies are playing against the run, they have a good shot at redemption. Tech is 19th nationally, allowing 103.0 yards per game on the ground. The 2.72 yards per carry the Hokies are allowing is ninth in the country and tops in the ACC. Defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins gets overlooked a lot, but he’s playing as well as any defender on the team right now. He has 25 tackles through four games, huge numbers for a tackle. He was in on seven tackles against Georgia Tech. Linebacker Jack Tyler continues to be a magnet to the ball, with 39 tackles this year. The Hokies can’t just rely on their front seven to the job, though. The secondary didn’t tackle well last year, aiding Bernard’s big day. They’ll need to be solid on their run fits for Tech to keep up its success.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech still hasn’t ironed out all of its issues. And that starts with kicker Cody Journell, who made a 39-yarder but missed one from 25, the first miss from inside 30 yards in his college career. The return game has yet to break out in 2013. At this point, having Knowles take a knee and getting the ball at the 25 seems like Tech’s best option. Kyshoen Jarrett continues to take risks returning punts. He’s been clobbered on a few plays where he easily could have called a fair catch. On the bright side, punter A.J. Hughes has been better. He’s averaging 44.2 yards per punt, up over a yard and a half from last year. He had three punts downed inside the 20 against Georgia Tech, including one before the Yellow Jackets’ final drive at the 5.
North Carolina has been pretty good on punts returns (11.88 avg., 38th nationally) and kick returns (23.88 avg., 31st). Freshman Ryan Switzer took one punt back 41 yards this year and kick returners T.J. Thorpe and Sean Tapley both have kick returns of over 40 yards. Kicker Thomas Moore is a perfect 4-for-4 this year, with all of his kicks from 39 yards or closer. Punter Tommy Hibbard is on the lower end of the ACC punting scale (41.5 avg.), but the Heels have allowed only 3.33 yards per return.
Edge: North Carolina
Again, this category usually goes to whatever team has a coach that’s getting the most out of a particular unit. Right now, that’s Foster (and probably is true for pretty much any game on the Hokies’ schedule right now). He’s got Tech playing at a high level and doing it against a pretty good variety of offenses. Alabama was a pro-style. ECU and Marshall were spread teams. Georgia Tech runs an option. UNC runs a hurry-up spread, something the Hokies have seen twice this year, performing well both times. For UNC, this is really the first crisis of Larry Fedora‘s head coaching career, or at least the biggest since Southern Miss started 2-6 in his first year in 2008. That team rebounded to win five straight and get to a bowl game. It’s possible UNC has that streak in it here, but for a program that was on an upward trajectory in his first year, this is the first stumble.
Edge: Virginia Tech
I originally came into this game thinking it was going to be tight. I thought 20-16 or something like that. I don’t have much confidence in the Hokies putting up a big number of points on anyone and know that North Carolina is a team capable of putting up plenty of points. But as I went through the particular matchups, I started seeing things more and more favorably for the Hokies. I still don’t think Virginia Tech has a dynamic offense (as its 109th ranking suggests), but the Tar Heels have been really bad on defense this year. Really bad. And Tech, despite its numbers, has moved the ball enough to win games. With Foster’s defense, moving the ball just enough usually gets the job done. I realize UNC put up 48 points on this crew last year, but I think the Hokies have taken a major step forward on defense and the Heels a step back on offense, especially up front, which was such a big reason for last year’s whupping. UNC has everything to play for, with its season in the balance. But Tech, especially everybody on defense, hasn’t forgotten last year’s game. I don’t think the Hokies will come out flat in this one. And if that’s the case, I think they win comfortably.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, North Carolina 16