CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Kenan Stadium will host its first matchup of ranked teams since 2008 on Saturday with Hurricane Matthew barreling up the Atlantic coast.
A win for No. 17 North Carolina (4-1, 2-0 ACC) would bolster its positioning for a second-straight ACC Coastal Division crown, while a win for No. 25 Virginia Tech (3-1, 1-0 ACC) would put first-year head coach Justin Fuente on track for the Hokies’ first Coastal Division title in five years.
Matthew may have a voice in how this game plays out even with a beneficial change in track to the east midweek. National forecasts as of Friday morning were calling for upwards of five inches of rain and 40 mph wind gusts on Saturday in the Triangle.
"Well, I don't know that there's a whole lot that we can do," Fuente said. "We don't have a lot of control over the weather. We practice outside quite a bit and there's a fair amount of wind in Blacksburg, particularly in the springtime. We've done some work with wet footballs to try and simulate that. It's something we don't have a whole lot of control over, and whatever it is, we'll do our best to adapt."
Working with wet footballs makes sense for the Hokies, given their nine lost fumbles this season. UNC has lost four fumbles in 2016, although wet weather is an afterthought for Larry Fedora.
“I think we practice enough in the rain, and our guys understand what's expected,” Fedora said. “It's the wind that you can't control. That's the thing that you worry about more than anything. We try not to let rain be a factor for us.”
Fedora has experience playing in severe weather conditions. His 2011 Southern Miss team outlasted Louisiana Tech, 19-17, in heavy wind and rain during Tropical Storm Lee over Labor Day weekend. The Golden Eagles’ offense was a model of balance, rushing 38 times and passing 38 times.
Saturday’s matchup will feature two of the ACC’s top quarterbacks. Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky leads the nation in completion percentage (76.0), ranks ninth in pass yards per attempt (9.8) and has yet to throw an interception in his first five career starts. His production, as well as his clutch performances in directing game-winning drives against Pittsburgh and Florida State, has elevated the Mentor, Ohio native into the Heisman Trophy conversation, although it’s not a topic that interests him.
“I don’t read it,” Trubisky said. “I try not to pay attention to it. Some of the guys have been gassing it up, giving me attention, but I don’t really need it. I don’t want it. It’s an honor to be mentioned, but I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
JUCO transfer Jerod Evans has been equally as effective for the Hokies, completing 67.0 percent of his passes for 970 yards, 13 touchdowns and an interception. He’s also a dual-threat quarterback, rushing for 209 yards and a touchdown at a 5.2-yards-per-carry clip.
Virginia Tech is also averaging 195.5 rushing yards per game with an assortments of backs led by Travon McMillian (212 yards, 2 TD).
“I still believe that centering [the offense] around running the football helps the quarterback play well,” Fuente said. “It's an emphasis for us every single week, finding ways to run the ball. But Jerod is a great athlete, and the thing he's done a good job of is taking care of the football, and hopefully that will continue.”
North Carolina has struggled to stop the run through five games, allowing an ACC-worst 236.8 rushing yards per game. The Tar Heels have shown signs of improvement – forcing a trio of fourth-quarter three-and-outs against Pittsburgh two weeks ago and holding FSU to 14 points through three quarters last weekend – but they have been unable to put together a complete defensive game.
Longtime VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit has fared significantly better, albeit against lesser competition. The Hokies rank top-10 nationally in both total defense (264.3) and yards per play allowed (4.2). Virginia Tech also ranks fourth nationally in third down conversion percentage defense (20.3).
“It's part of the chess match,” Fedora said. “You're always thinking about what [Foster] knows and what he may be trying to do, and I'm sure he's doing the same thing with us. I know he's always done a good job of stopping in the next year anything that we've hurt him with the year before.”
Saturday’s matchup is critical for the Coastal Division race. Virginia Tech avoids Clemson, Louisville and Florida State out of the Atlantic, and gets No. 10 Miami at home. UNC, on the other hand, cleared its most significant hurdle in topping Florida State on the road last week.
UNC has not beaten ranked teams in back-to-back games since 2008.