The “South’s Oldest Rivalry” has not been to very kind to the University of Virginia in recent years. The Cavaliers have dropped their last four in a row to the Tar Heels, with three of those games coming by 24 points or more. As for 2014, this is a team and fan base that has ridden a roller coaster to a 4-3 (2-1 ACC) record. Virginia has lost three one-score games to UCLA, BYU and most recently Duke last Saturday. On the other hand, head coach Mike London’s team has two solid conference wins over Pitt and Louisville in addition to victories over Richmond and Kent State. London, who is likely in a make-or-break year after going 2-10 (0-8 ACC) last season, has his program playing significantly better than in recent years. It should be encouraging for the UVa fan base that this team has already doubled the program’s win total from a season ago.
After sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert (63-of-97 passing for 564 yards, 2 T, 4 INT) won the quarterback job coming out of spring, his spotty play in the opener against UCLA allowed Matt Johns (82-of-147 passing for 1,012 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT) to get some work under center. An ankle injury sidelined Lambert for three weeks early in the season, but although he was available to play against Duke on Saturday, Johns took all of the snaps and responded with a career-high 325 passing yards. Given the shaky quarterback situation, this is an offense that has not been particularly explosive. Johns may have taken a step forward, but he has completed just 55 percent of his passes and the passing game is averaging 235.6 yards per game. The Cavs’ rushing attack has been solid but not outstanding. Virginia is averaging a pedestrian 4.3 yards per carry and only starter Kevin Parks (71.7 ypg) has eclipsed the 250-yard mark for the entire season.
The foundation of this team is built from the strength of its aggressive blitz-first, ask-questions-later mentality. Defense, of course, is London’s specialty and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has a solid resume. Virginia ranks seventh in the ACC in total defense (331.3 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (22.1 ppg). London’s proactive scheme was in full display in UVa’s season opener when his team nearly upset 25th-ranked UCLA (ranked No. 7 in the AP poll at the time). The Cavs’ defense held Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley (a potential first-round draft pick) to less than 250 yards passing and limited the dual threat to just 62 yards rushing. Hundley has a similar size and skill set to that of UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, so the Cavaliers have experience to lean on. Junior defensive end Eli Harold (36 tkl, 8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and freshman safety Quin Blanding (70 tkl) headline this solid unit.
“They’re a much improved football team I can tell you that. I’ve spent most of the morning watching their defense. I think they have seven seniors there on the defense, they have confidence over there, and they’re running hard to the ball.” –Fedora
“He’s that extra element because he can run, and as has been alluded to, they put up a lot of points, and it’s going to be important for us to play the type of defense that – you never can contain a guy – but you need to know where he’s at all times because he’s a threat, even when you have a pass rush, to break contain or scramble. But he definitely adds an element to their offense, and he’s improved the last couple games for sure.” – London on Marquise Williams
UNC's Defense vs. UVa's Offense
This might not be an individual matchup, but its an important aspect of Saturday’s contest. With the exception of Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels have been tasked with defending some very good offensive football teams in recent weeks. Between ECU’s pass-heavy attack, Clemson’s dual-threat freshman phenom quarterback, or Georgia Tech’s robust triple-option ground game, this fragile UNC defense has hardly had a second to catch its breath. By no means does that excuse the litany of blown assignments, missed tackles, and penalties that have haunted this defense, but this week presents a chance at a fresh start for this unit heading into the stretch run. Last week against a Blue Devils’ defense that was ranked 12th in the conference, the Cavaliers could only muster 13 points. London admittedly would prefer to keep the scoring in the 20, if possible. If UNC’s offense gets its tempo going, Johns and Co. may be tasked with scoring more efficiently in the red zone, which has been a problem area for UNC’s defense as well.
UNC’s Offensive Line vs. Virginia’s Blitzing
On Monday, Fedora acknowledged that his offensive line was getting better, but that there was still much work to be done. Last week, the starting five were together for the second week in a row (finally healthy) and did have success in both pass protection and the running game against Georgia Tech. The caveat, of course, is that the Yellow Jackets’ defense has been one of the worst in the ACC, surrendering an average 415.6 yards per game and 6.4 yards per play. The last time this front five saw a blitz scheme as aggressive as Virginia’s was against San Diego State. Despite the narrow victory over the Rocky Long’s team, things did not go particularly well in the trenches on that particular evening. Unlike the Aztec’s 3-3-5 scheme, the Cavaliers employ a more a slightly more straightforward 4-3 alignment, but that doesn’t mean the pressure won’t still be coming hard and often. Virginia ranks third in the ACC in forcing five 3-and-outs per game.
Heels Return to Hooville
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