The Cavaliers will arrive in Chapel Hill following their first 2-0 start since the 2005 season after blowing out William & Mary, 40-3, in their opener and securing a tough 34-31 road win over Indiana last weekend. Mike London is looking to notch his seventh victory in 15 games as Virginia's head coach on Saturday. The Cavaliers returned 16 starters from last season's 4-8 squad, and both sides of the ball have become comfortable in the new schemes (pro-style offense, 4-3 defense) that London installed upon his hiring.
First-year starting quarterback Michael Rocco has completed 36 of his 58 passes for 365 yards and two interceptions, but UVa has been able to lean on a solid running game to average 37 points a game. The Cavaliers' defense has been stingy, allowing just 244.0 yards per game and a 3.9 yards-per-play average. Inexperience has been a concern as 21 underclassmen occupy the two-deep. Twenty-four players saw their first action against William & Mary, including 12 true freshmen.
"They do go after the same type of student athletes we do. But I think what's been pretty good for both ourselves and for Tech is that the top players in the state have decided that they see themselves having more opportunities here. I can remember in years past when three or four of the top in state Virginia players would end up there. So both staffs are doing a pretty good job of addressing that when it comes to recruiting." – UVa head coach Mike London on the recruiting implications for Saturday's game
"It's something that we need to take seriously. Really, the only thing that matters is the ACC. Yes, winning against JMU and winning against Rutgers is nice, but this is when our season officially begins. And we feel like we can't take that for granted. We can't take a week off." – UNC quarterback Bryn Renner
Matchups to Watch
UVa's Ground Game vs. UNC's Run Defense
Since 1940, the team that has outrushed its opponent in this rivalry owns a 54-14 record. While both North Carolina and Virginia boast solid run defenses, the Tar Heels likely have the upper hand. UNC held Rutgers to one net rushing yard last Saturday and currently ranks third nationally in rushing defense (30.0 ypg).
North Carolina's 4-3 scheme is successful due to a strong push upfront and a set of linebackers able to fill run gaps with plenty of speed.
"Our defensive line has played really well these last two games," UNC defensive end Kareem Martin said. "Depth can be attributed to that. We rotate about eight guys on the line, so being able to stay fresh throughout the whole game really helps us to penetrate the offense, especially in the fourth quarter."
Virginia will counter with a two-headed ground game led by junior Perry Jones (34 carries, 134 rushing yards, TD). Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has also utilized Jones (7 catches, 102 yards) in the short passing game to alleviate pressure off his inexperienced quarterback.
"You try to utilize what your playmakers can do for you, and Perry probably has one of the best hands on the team as far as catching the ball," London said. "It's good to have a weapon like that out of the backfield in a screen-lineup in a slot formation and run routes like that."
Red-shirt freshman Kevin Parks (27 carries, 151 yards, 5 TD) has burst on the scene this year to complement Jones in the backfield. Recruitniks may remember Parks (5-foot-8, 195 pounds) from his high school days in Salisbury, N.C. (West Rowan), but UNC never offered due to his speed-size ratio.
Virginia has amassed 402 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in two games this season.
If North Carolina's front seven is able to limit Virginia's rushing attack and force the Cavaliers into obvious passing downs, then Rocco could be in line for a tough day against UNC's pass rush.
UNC's Dwight Jones vs. UVa's Chase Minnifield
The preseason accolades were plentiful for Virginia cornerback Chase Minnifield (photo below right) – All-ACC, Playboy All-American and watch list spots for the Jim Thorpe Award, Lott Trophy and Nagurski Trophy. That's what happens when you finish second in the ACC and fifth nationally with six interceptions in 2010.
William & Mary and Indiana shied away from testing Minnifield the past two weeks, which speaks to the Lexington, Ky. native's talents and the fact that a true freshman – Demetrious Nicholson – is starting at the opposite cornerback spot.
"I think Chase's done a very, very good job of playing defensive corner, playing the run, playing the pass in our nickel situations," London said. "So Chase has embraced the whole role of playing off, playing up, playing trailer, coming off the edge, communicating with the rest of the secondary about what's going on with what he sees. He's played that role, and it's become a significant role for the entire secondary."
It's expected that defensive coordinator Jim Reid will put Minnifield on UNC wide receiver Dwight Jones more often than not in an attempt to slow down the ACC's leader in receptions (15 catches for 251 yards, 3 TD).
As expected, Jones has picked up where he left off as a junior, hauling in 65 catches for 1,093 yards and six touchdowns over his last 10 games. The transition from former quarterback T.J. Yates to his current signal caller has been seamless.
"[We] built chemistry over the summer," Renner said. "… We just kind of clicked during the summer. [Jones] showed up to every single workout, which was really big for our chemistry and the entire offense. We had a lot of days just to throw – me and him spent countless hours on the field just by ourselves working on where he wants the ball and where I'm going to put it for him."
The Minnifield-Jones matchup will be critical in determining how efficient UNC's offense will operate in its ACC opener.