Virginia Tech has been one of the more impressive teams in the country this year, and the Hokies (2-0) come into the game ranked 19 in the AP poll. They have a team with their backs against the walls and have fought hard to be 2-0. Injuries and COVID-19 positives have made it difficult for the Hokies, with 21 players missing their game against Duke.
The No. 8 ranked Tar Heels (2-0) have everything to play for coming in. With no ACC divisions this year, every game is huge. Especially top-25 matchups. With UNC dropping the 6OT thriller in Blacksburg last year, the team in blue will be hunting for revenge.
Stopping the ground game
The Hokies’ rushing attack has by far been the strength of their team in the first two games. They are running at an incredible rate of seven yards per attempt and 319 yards per game. This is fascinating matchup because North Carolina statistically has the best rush defense in the country, allowing just 54 yards per game. That pairs with just two yards per attempt and no rushing touchdowns allowed.
The numbers are great for UNC, but the sample size is not impressive. In the two games the Tar Heels have played there are big reasons for the stout defense. Syracuse had a piecemeal offensive line, with a former fullback playing guard. On top of that, the Orange also had two running backs opt out before the season. Boston College threw the UNC coaching staff for a loop, deciding to nearly abandon the run game in favor of testing new quarterback Phil Jurkovec. He threw the ball 56 times aad was the full focus of the offense. The Eagles have solid pair of running backs who combined for just 10 carries for 36 yards.
Virginia Tech will challenge that rush defense and poise a new level of threat to the Tar Heels. The front-seven will be important to watch, with a specific view on the play of linebacker Chazz Surratt and nose tackle Ray Vohasek.
Can Howell find his rhythm on the deep ball?
Sam Howell has not had the start that many people expected, but it also hasn’t been bad. Rust has been apparent, and the teams UNC have played strongly game planned for the way Howell likes to play. The Tar Heel quarterback doesn’t like to check down. He likes to make big plays and push the ball down the field. Teams have studied that tape and the sophomore has seen deep coverages and blitz packages to blow that up.
Virginia Tech’s secondary depth took an immense blow last week. Seven of the team’s defensive backs were out, including multiple starters. That number is supposed to be lower on Saturday, but nothing has been finalized at the time of writing.
Howell has an ability to complete a multitude of throws, and a variety of play calling will be important. Play action will be big for the Tar Heels. If they can maintain success in the running game, that could be what allows Howell to get the ball deep and break the game open.
Part of the issues has also been the offensive line. They have been inconsistent so far this season, and Howell has been taking far too many hits. Some of those have come because he has held onto the ball too long, but the line desperately needs to give their quarterback more time in the pocket.
Cut down mistakes
Probably the biggest takeaway from both of UNC’s games is the immense number of mistakes committed by the team. Missed assignments, turnovers, and penalties lose games, and they were the only reason the Tar Heels haven’t had two easy wins. They have had nine penalties for over 90 yards in each game. Sam Howell has thrown three interceptions as well, though two of them weren’t exactly his fault.
Howell’s lone interception against Boston College came from a missed block by his running back. Javonte Williams simply whiffed on an edge rusher off of Howell’s blindside. That led to his quarterback being hit and the ball flew up in the air for an interception with UNC’s own 10 yard line.
Penalties are expected early in the season, and Mack Brown admitted last week that he was worried about rust before each of these games. With three weeks in between games one and two, it was basically like starting the season over again. With the team’s first top-25 matchup coming to town, the Tar Heels can’t afford those types of mistakes this week.