Both teams opened ACC play with a loss, thereby placing an added level of urgency in this weekend’s matchup at Kenan Stadium.
“I think it’s perfectly clear that it’s a conference game and if you want to be in the battle for this division, it’s a critical game,” Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. “That’s the deal.”
That being said, neither program is playing its best ball heading into the first weekend of October. UNC trailed FCS opponent Liberty and San Diego State in the second half of its opening two games before rallying for wins and then surrendered 120 points in back-to-back losses to East Carolina (70-41) and Clemson (50-35).
Following a strong win over then-No. 8 Ohio State at the Horseshoe, the Hokies lost back-to-back games to East Carolina (28-21) and Georgia Tech (27-24) before bouncing back last week against Western Michigan (35-17).
Similarities, however, appear to begin and end with penalties. UNC and Virginia Tech are tied for last in the ACC in penalty yards per game (78.0) and are tied for 117th nationally.
UNC’s woes have primarily resided on defense. The Tar Heels rank last of all power conference schools in scoring defense (44.0 ppg, 123rd), total defense (543.0 ypg, 120th) and passing defense (353.0 ypg, 124th).
UNC will get a reprieve of sorts against a Virginia Tech offense lacking the firepower of ECU or Clemson. The Hokies rank 69th nationally in scoring offense (29.8 ppg) and 63rd in total offense (422.2 ypg).
Virginia Tech will be without its second-leading rusher in freshman Shai McKenzie, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Western Michigan. Freshman Marshawn Williams (290 yards, 2 TD) is expected to split reps with sophomore Trey Edmunds (32 yards), who was the Hokies’ leading rusher last season before breaking his foot.
Texas Tech transfer and starting quarterback Michael Brewer has been hot and cold this season, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 1,223 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
UNC, for all of its missed assignments and mental breakdowns, ranks third in the ACC in interceptions (7).
“We're going to have to stop the run, and we're going to have to create some takeaways,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “That's going to be huge for us to get off the field on 3rd downs.”
Virginia Tech ranks 11th nationally in third-down conversion percentage (51.8), while UNC ranks 122nd in third-down conversion defense (52.4).
UNC’s offense has managed to put up points (40.8 ppg; 22nd nationally), but has struggled to sustain drives (438.6 ypg; 59th) with 12 three-and-outs and three turnovers in 42 possessions against FBS opponents.
“We have to move the chains,” Fedora said. “We're going to have to stay on the field and move the chains. To do that we're going to have to run the ball effectively.”
UNC ranks 29th nationally in passing offense (296.5 ypg) and 85th (142.0 ypg) in rushing offense. The Tar Heels featured freshman tailback Elijah Hood (13 carries, 71 yards) against Clemson in an attempt to establish an effective ground game.
Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech defense is once again one of the best in the ACC, allowing only ECU to top the 400-yard mark (502). The Pirates are averaging 581.5 yards per game on the season.
ECU and Georgia Tech both struck the Hokies with explosive plays to turn those contests in their favor.
“One of the basic rules of our defense is just don’t give up the long play,” Beamer said. “You give them a long play, that’s a lot of snaps they didn’t take, and the more snaps they take, the better the percentages are with our defense that something good is going to happen.”
UNC’s explosive plays in the passing game this season have largely come off screen passes and trick plays, outside of Marquise Williams’s 91-yard pass to Mack Hollins against San Diego State. Foster employs a lot of man free coverage, which should provide 1-on-1 opportunities for the Tar Heels to turn into big plays.
“They’re a smothering, attacking defense,” UNC offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. “They have a lot of confidence in their DBs. They’re going to play a lot of man and they’re going to load the box up more than you can block and they’re going to come after you… They’re going to get their plays, but we have to get ours.”
It’s far too early in the season to classify any game as a must-win, although three losses through six weeks for either team will be considered a disappointment.
“We have goals and they have goals,” UNC senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer said. “It’s an ACC game and it’s a big-time game for both teams. We’re going to come out ready to play.”
A loss on Saturday doesn’t eliminate either team from the Coastal Division race, although there would be minimal, if any, margin of error available for the remainder of the conference schedule. Duke won the Coastal last season with a 6-2 record despite dropping its first two ACC games to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh in September.
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