Series Record: North Carolina leads, 63-54-4
Last Five Games: UNC leads, 5-0
Getting to know the Cavaliers
Midway through his first season in Charlottesville, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s transition period remains a challenge. Virginia (2-4, 1-1 ACC) stumbled out of the gates and have yet to regain their footing, although there are signs of improvement. As the Cavaliers enter the thick of their ACC schedule in the coming weeks, they need to adjust quickly or risk faltering even more.
The Cavaliers started the Mendenhall-era with three straight losses to nonconference opponents. They got their first ACC win of the season against Duke two weeks ago, 34-20, before losing to Pitt, 45-31, last week. While UVA’s offensive production hasn’t been stellar, it’s undoubtedly the strength of the team. It’s the defense that has been coming up short, as the unit is ranked 107th in the nation in total defense.
UVA’s offense has been about as middle of the road as an offense can be so far this season. It ranks 71st in the country in total offense (403.3 ypg) and 65th in scoring offense (28.3 ppg).
The offense is run by junior Kurt Benkert, an ECU transfer, who is six games into his new life in Charlottesville. Benkert came to UVA after former ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill was named as an assistant on Mendenhall’s staff. Benkert has had his ups and down as he’s adjusted to his new offense. He’s ranked sixth in the ACC in passing yards (1,733) and 11th in completion percentage (57.2). He’s thrown 14 touchdowns, but also is third in the ACC with seven interceptions already this season.
McNeill describes Benkert as a dual-threat, but the 6-foot-3 quarterback hasn’t been forced to use his legs much due UVa’s solid tandem running backs in Albert Reid and Taquan Mizzell. The duo has rushed for a combined 701 yards this season and both average more than five yards per carry. Reid is the bigger of the two backs (210 lbs.) and is much more of the ground-and-pound option for the Cavs. Mizzell is the faster of the two and is more of a “do-everything” back, as he’s called on in the receiving game almost as much as he is in the backfield. Coincidentally enough, Reid and Mizzell are used very similarly to the way that UNC uses Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan together.
That is the biggest name you need to know when you talk about UVA’s defense. Kiser has been the one shining star of Mendenhall’s new defense. The junior linebacker is the commander of the defense and has impressed even when the rest of his group has failed to do so. For Kiser, the stats speak for themselves. He has 58 tackles on the year, including five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He’s also forced a pair of fumbles. Kiser is the type of player that makes up for the rest of the faults in his front seven. He has the ability to set a tone early with his physical play and hard tackles.
Safety Quin Blanding (36 tackles, INT) is a do-everything defensive back that must be accounted for. While his secondary has seven interceptions thus far, it’s also given up huge chunks of passing yardage. The Cavaliers are ranked 114th in the country in passing yards allowed (280.8) and rank 13th in the ACC in defensive pass efficiency (138.5).
“I like my team. I like how hard they try and how they've embraced the culture. And we're moving up the scale of the effort and intent to position mastery and execution. That's basically where our team is right now. So we're becoming better in terms of our position mastery and playing our spots. Execution is not holding yet long enough from beginning to end in all three phases to have the outcomes that we would like. But more and more plays are looking how we would like them to be. So we'll continue to expedite and accelerate that process the very best way that we can.” – Mendenhall
“North Carolina is a consistent winner now. When Coach Fedora took over, I don’t know what it was like or how long that took, but they are a consistent winner now. So once we’ve addressed that, that’s really all I’ll present to the team as we’re playing a consistent winner that’s an ACC opponent. Then it just goes to plays and jersey numbers and our own focus. Man, we spend every ounce of time we have right now just on our own performance, and we acknowledge the opponent and what they do in the schematics. But anything beyond that is nothing we can control nor we can influence.” – Mendenhall on UNC’s streak of eight straight road wins
Matchup to Watch
UNC QB Mitch Trubisky versus UVa’s Secondary
After faltering against Virginia Tech two weeks ago, UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky got his swagger back in the Tar Heels’ win over Miami last Saturday, throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns in the 20-13 win. That type of response was not what the Cavaliers were hoping to see. If you remove the hurricanes-affected Virginia Tech game, Trubisky doesn’t turn the ball over, and that’s been a key component for how the Cavaliers secondary has found success in stopping opposing passing attacks. Mendenhall’s defense has given up almost 1,700 passing yards this year along with 11 touchdowns. Even without Mack Hollins, who is out for the year with a broken collarbone, look for Trubisky to find success airing it out against this defense.