Series History: North Carolina leads the series, 62-54-0
Last Five Games: North Carolina leads, 5-0
Getting to Know Virginia
The Cavaliers enter the South’s Oldest Rivalry looking to maintain momentum after a 44-38 overtime victory over Syracuse last week. Mike London’s team is looking for its first win over a quality opponent on a schedule filled with tough competition. While Virginia is just 2-4 on the season, all four of its losses came against teams that have been ranked at some point.
Virginia also looks to snap a five-game losing streak to the Tar Heels. North Carolina has won that stretch by an average of 20.6 points per game, including the 28-27 victory the Tar Heels eked out in Charlottesville last year.
Virginia ranks 95th nationally in total offense (356.5 ypg) and T-86th in scoring offense (25.8).
The Wahoos are led by junior quarterback Matt Johns, who has started all six games in 2015. Johns has completed over 61 percent of his passes, but has thrown eight interceptions on the season to his 11 passing touchdowns. This kind of shaky play is a result of a banged up offensive line, which has given up 13 sacks on the season. Virginia lost center Eric Tretlow and tackle Jake Fieler for the season in early September, and offensive linemen Michael Mooney, Sadiq Olanrewaju and Sean Karl are all questionable for Saturday’s game.
Johns’s biggest weapon is junior running back Taquan Mizzell, who leads the Cavaliers in both receptions and rushing yards this season. Mizzell is averaging 3.8 yards per carry and has scored two rushing touchdowns, but he excels in Virginia’s passing game, recording 35 catches for 409 yards and three touchdowns. Virginia loves to run different variations of the screen to Mizzell, and he will be the player to watch for this offense. Another receiver to watch is Canaan Severin, who has 418 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns so far in his senior season. He will draw plenty of attention from North Carolina’s defensive backs.
Of course, the one receiver most eyes will be on in Chapel Hill is former Tar Heel T.J. Thorpe. Thorpe transferred to Virginia after graduating from UNC in December, and will be making his return to Kenan Stadium. Thorpe has one touchdown on the year (a deep ball scored against Boise State on national television that many of his former teammates celebrated), and won’t be as familiar with the defense as you’d expect a former teammate to be, given the complete overhaul that defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has implemented at UNC.
And while he’s technically a special teams player, senior kicker Ian Frye leads the Cavaliers in scoring. Despite missing three straight field goal attempts against Notre Dame, William & Mary and Boise State, Frye has recovered to connect on 6-of-9 field goals and 17-of-18 PATs, totaling 35 points.
Virginia has also struggled defensively, ranking 82nd in the nation in total defense, right ahead of North Carolina’s Week 1 opponent South Carolina. The Cavaliers are giving up an average of 413 yards per game. It’d be easy to chalk this up to tough competition, but the Wahoos gave up 393 yards and 38 points to Syracuse and its 110th-ranked offense.
The transitive property is normally unreliable, but that’s an intriguing stat to consider when recalling that North Carolina totaled 538 yards against a Wake Forest defense that ranked top-20 nationally.
Virginia will resemble Wake Forest in the way it relies on the blitz to force pressure. North Carolina picked up the Demon Deacons’ blitzes very well last week, and it resulted in seven plays of more than 20 yards. Combine that with a secondary that has been burned on miscommunications several times this season and has failed to intercept a pass through six games, and the matchup again favors UNC.
Sophomore linebacker Micah Kiser has thrived in this defense, though, and is an impact player for the Cavaliers. Kiser leads the team with 61 tackles, including 10 for a loss and five sacks, while also forcing a pair of fumbles.
“When you look at it, they are probably one of the most, per-possession, explosive teams that are out there, in plays that are over 20 yards or more. You look at them and they've got guys on the team that have, whether it's a run with Hood or passes being thrown to the very talented group of receivers, whoever it may be, they've done a nice job with the explosive plays in creating those opportunities. They have a quarterback that's mobile that can run the ball, as well, and has played well here lately in terms of his efficiency, completion percentages and all those things. But they'll throw the long ball on you. They'll make those types of throws, and I think they have those types of athletes that can go get it.” – Virginia head coach Mike London on UNC’s offense
“Nobody’s going tell me that they’re not a good football team. I’ve watched them on film extensively; they’re really good. Their four losses were all to teams that were ranked. They’re 1-1 in the league, and they know they’ve got a chance.” – UNC head coach Larry Fedora
Matchup To Watch
UNC WR Mack Hollins vs. Virginia’s Secondary
Last week, Hollins burned Wake Forest for 103 yards and three touchdowns, and that did that amount of damage with just three catches. That was a defense that came heavy with the blitz, and Virginia will look to do more of the same. Bringing in extra defenders off the outside gives Hollins 1-on-1 opportunities on the edge, which presents a challenge for defensive backs due to his blend of speed and length. In last year’s win at Scott Stadium, Hollins reeled in a pair of catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cavaliers rank 96th nationally in passing yards allowed (252.3) and 120th in pass efficiency defense (161.7), which are surprising numbers considering senior cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady have combined for 61 career starts.