Countdown to Kickoff: Virginia

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina travels to Charlottesville following a short week to renew the oldest rivalry in the South with a suddenly hot Virginia squad (7:30pm/ESPN).

The Tar Heels lead the series with the Cavaliers, 59-53-4, and have won two straight against their rivals to the north for the first time in nearly three decades. Saturday's game will be the 117th meeting between these two programs, which ranks fifth nationally in most games played between two schools.

North Carolina (6-4, 3-3 ACC) opened as a 6.0-point favorite over Virginia (4-6, 2-4 ACC), but that spread has since dropped to 3.5 points. That type of move likely reflects the recent play of both teams.

The Cavaliers had lost six straight games heading into their bye week at the end of October, but have since found an offensive rhythm to go along with a steady defense to win their last two games over N.C. State (33-6) and Miami (41-40). The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have dropped two of their last three while giving up a combined 136 points.

Georgia Tech scored a Kenan Stadium-record number of points in its 68-50 victory over UNC last weekend.

"Right now, I don't think we're where we want to be," associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning told reporters on Tuesday. "We've had three games in a row where we've given up too many yards, too many points."

Four weeks ago, North Carolina ranked 14th nationally in rushing defense (99.7), 22nd in scoring defense (17.3) and 22nd in total defense (327.0). UNC now ranks 36th in rushing defense (137.9), 56th in scoring defense (25.7) and 60th in total defense (392.1),

The Tar Heel players didn't even watch game film of the record-setting loss on Sunday. While there are negatives associated with playing after a short week, UNC is approaching it as a positive to get back on the field as quickly as possible.

"Either way, we are going to say it's good, because that's the only way you can approach it is that it's good," head coach Larry Fedora said on Wednesday. "You have a bad taste in your mouth, you only have a few days and hopefully you get that bad taste out of your mouth so you don't have to wait all the way until Saturday.

"I think our guys have handled the short week well in practices, the way they have done it, gone about it; their maturity, the way we have wanted to have energy out there but also be able to take something off of them. But I guess the real proof is going to be how we play Thursday night."

Virginia head coach Mike London has received plenty of criticism this season for alternating Michael Rocco (136-of-221, 1585 yards, 12 TD, 8 INT) and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims (103- of-179, 1203 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT). That talk has quieted down in November as the Cavaliers are averaging 37.0 points and 464 yards over their past two games.

"I know that it's not the most conventional, but each team has to decide what's in the best interests of the team and what's going to move the team forward," London said on Wednesday. "I've always said between those two guys, what makes it easier is that Michael is selfless and so is Phillip. They just want the team to win. They want to do whatever their part is to help us win."

London also said that it's imperative for his offense to put points on the board to offset UNC's lethal offensive attack. Virginia has held UNC to 27 points or less in all but four games since 1979, but the Cavaliers have never encountered a Tar Heel offense quite like Larry Fedora's spread look.

UNC is averaging 448.7 yards per game (15th nationally), which is nearly 47 yards more per game that the school's single-season record of 441.8 set in 1983. The Tar Heels rank 10th nationally in scoring offense (40.5) and are one of only nine FBS programs averaging 250 passing and 200 rushing yards per game.

Sophomore running Gio Bernard, a frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year honors and a fringe Heisman candidate, headlines Fedora's offensive attack, ranking top-10 nationally in four statistical categories – scoring (2nd), all-purpose yards (3rd), punt return average (4th) and rushing (8th).

"Carolina has shown that they are very explosive offensive and put so many points up on the board," London said. "They are a quick strike offense with a veteran quarterback in Renner and have outstanding height in their wide receivers. And obviously the guy who makes it all go for them is Bernard, who is the No. 1 in the nation in punt returns, rushing yards, total yards. So he's got the whole package. So, we have our work cut out for us because there are so many weapons that they have."

Touchdowns will be at a premium for the Tar Heels, as the school announced on Tuesday that Lou Groza Award candidate Casey Barth is out for the season after suffering an undisclosed injury on a kickoff return last weekend.

North Carolina's offense stalled early in its only other primetime game this season – a 33-30 loss at Duke – so a strong start has been a focus this week to counter what expects to be a lively Scott Stadium crowd.

"We've got to play well early," said UNC quarterback Bryn Renner, who has completed 219 of his 347 passes for 2,736 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. "We're going to be on the road and they're going to be excited. They're at home. One thing about college football is that it is about momentum. If we control that early and get some big plays, and get some stops on defense and make some big plays in special teams, then we'll be okay."

A win on Thursday would represent North Carolina's second straight over the Cavaliers at Scott Stadium after losing 14 straight in Charlottesville.

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