No one said it was going to be easy. When Al Groh was canned in Charlottesville following the '09 season after losing 16 of his previous 24 games, former two-time Virginia assistant coach Mike London appeared to be a logical choice despite the fan base's desire for a more high-profile name. The 49-year-old father of seven returned to Thomas Jefferson's college after winning a FCS championship and posting a 24-5 record over the past two seasons at Richmond, but the transition has been difficult, as expected.
Armed with just 12 returning starters, London switched Groh's 3-4 defense back into the more traditional 4-3 and retooled an offense that suffered through an identity crisis last season after the failed Gregg Brandon spread offense installment. Despite victories over Richmond and VMI, the Cavaliers have lost all three contests to BCS-level opponents this season and currently owns a 2-3 (0-2 ACC) record. Virginia has now lost nine consecutive games against Division I-A competition and eight straight versus ACC opponents. London may need some voodoo on his side to emerge victorious on Saturday during Homecoming weekend, and the infamous curse that has plagued North Carolina at Scott Stadium since 1981 can only help.
Virginia has been inconsistent on both sides of the ball in '10, which helps to explain a total offense ranking of 54th (394.8 ypg) and a total defense ranking of 63rd (361.0 ypg).
"You're not looking at anybody that's feeling sorry for themselves or down or anything like that. We're a work in progress and we said that at the beginning when we first started. Trying to build what these guys think about themselves. Our players are together. We're all on the same page. Coaches are with each other, the attitude and atmosphere around the McCue Center is high. And that's the way it should be, because of the way things are changing." – London on his team's 2-3 start
"I am very proud the way our coaches and players have fought through the adversity, the way that they're playing." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
Matchups to Watch
Virginia's Marc Verica vs. North Carolina's Pass Defense
It's to be expected that North Carolina fans involuntarily cringe when hearing Verica's name. After all, it was Verica that marched the Cavaliers down the field two years ago in a textbook two-minute drill for a tying score, completing seven of his eight passes for 80 yards and cementing his status on the curse's resume.
Verica has been solid during his senior season, completing 89 of his 155 passes for 1,147 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions, but the Lansdowne, Pa. native threw four of his touchdown passes against FCS competition. Part of his problem has been the undesirable trait of putting himself in difficult down-and-distance situations.
"Our thing with Marc is to try to get him to have some success early," London said. "He's got to have success early. We've got to complete some passes, we've got to set up 2nd-and-2. We've got to have a 2nd-and-5 or 2nd-and-6. Then the thing is you can do again is prepare to have a successful, makeable third down situation."
Verica has two solid receiving options in Kris Burd (23 catches, 381 yards, 4 TD) and Dontrelle Inman (20 catches, 325 yards, 2 TD), but the offensive line has not done its job well enough in pass protection, allowing 3.0 sacks per game (T-104th nationally).
North Carolina has not exactly lit up opposing quarterbacks, ranking 99th in sacks (1.2) and 94th in tackles for loss (4.8), but the Tar Heel front seven has improved as the season has moved along and those results are seen in strong aerial defensive numbers (pass defense – 176.2 ypg, 26th nationally; pass efficiency defense – 116.1, 37th).
"They're playing fast," London said. "Their linebackers are very physical. They have a 4-3 scheme. Don't do a whole lot of blitzing, but they just play well technique wise, they cover well. You just see them flying around to the ball."
Virginia has struggled to run the ball effectively (128.4 ypg, 83rd) this season, so if the Tar Heels can continue to put Verica in 3rd-and-long situations, those sack numbers may ultimately improve come Sunday.
North Carolina's Ground Game vs. Virginia's Run Defense
In hindsight, the decision to return fifth-year senior Johnny White permanently to running back last spring was either an act of pure genious or pure luck. Either way, the UNC coaching staff dodged a lethal bullet with the move as Shaun Draughn was sidelined for one game and battering ram Ryan Houston continues to sit for his involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation.
White delivered a game-high 179 all-purpose yards in the 21-16 victory over Clemson on Saturday, churning out the majority of his 89 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. The Asheville, N.C. has already surpassed his previous season-high mark in '07 with 407 net rushing yards and four touchdowns, good for a 5.6-yards-per-carry average.
"You can just see that kid is just running his heart out," Davis said. "It says lot about him. He just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding. And eventually he'll found a crease and find a crack, and bounce out the back door and make some really good runs."
Draughn has seemingly returned to full speed as well, totaling 222 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. The Tar Heels have steadily improved their ground game efforts, churning out 354 yards and five touchdowns during their past two victories.
Virginia has gone in the other direction. The Cavaliers are allowing 210.0 rushing yards per game (109th nationally), which looks tame when you consider that they have surrendered 733 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in their past two games alone (Florida State, Georgia Tech). London points to four missed tackles against FSU and the difficulty of Paul Johnson's unique offense as explanations for those glaring statistics.
"I still feel good about our defense," London said. "Minimize the missed tackles in one game, and the other one is an offense that you've got to be assignment oriented and we just didn't do a good job there."
Rushing success is critical against a Virginia defense that has proven to be solid against the pass, ranking 10th nationally (151.0 ypg) despite already having faced solid quarterbacks in Richmond's Aaron Corp, USC's Matt Barkley and FSU's Christian Ponder.