CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It wasn’t long ago the Charlottesville curse plagued the North Carolina football program for three decades. The Tar Heels have since won three straight at Scott Stadium and look to push that streak to four in row on Saturday.
The 22nd-ranked Tar Heels (5-2, 3-1 ACC) are a 9.5-point favorite over the Cavaliers (2-4, 1-1 ACC) in the 121st playing of the South’s Oldest Rivalry. UNC has won eight straight true road games, its longest as an ACC member, and good for the fourth-longest road win streak in the country.
Along with Virginia Tech, UNC sits atop the ACC Coastal Division standings after knocking off a ranked opponent for the second time in three weeks with its 20-13 win over Miami last weekend. Its closing stretch, however, was made all the more difficult with the news that wide receiver Mack Hollins (broken collarbone) and left guard Caleb Peterson (back) – seniors who combined for 59 career starts – had suffered season-ending injuries.
Add in the likelihood that senior right tackle Jon Heck will miss Saturday’s game due to concussion-like symptoms, and UNC’s offense will be without three veteran starters. The Tar Heels rank 27th nationally in yards per play (6.34) and 53rd in scoring offense (32.1).
Lost in the injury situation is the ever-improving play of Gene Chizik’s defense, which shouldered the burden in securing UNC’s win in South Florida. The Tar Heels have held each of their last two opponents to under 370 total yards of offense.
"We've been right there with strides in the positive direction," defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke said. "We've just been off a couple of times and making a catastrophic play here where we should have made a stop in the backfield. I feel like we're together and we're finally playing as a defense that is making [fewer] mistakes, and that we're finally capitalizing on the plays that we should."
The defensive improvement started up front, where the Tar Heels have been more consistently effective in maintaining gap integrity and winning the line of scrimmage. As a result, UNC has been stouter against the run, holding Miami to 3.9 yards per carry one week after limiting Virginia Tech to 2.9 yards per carry.
That trend contrasts with Virginia’s run game production. After averaging 5.0 yards per carry against its first three FBS opponents, the Cavaliers have managed just 2.7 yards per carry in ACC play. Even so, UVa’s rushing attack, headlined by Taquan Mizzell (355 yards, 3 TD) and Albert Reid (346 yards, 6 TD), poses challenges for the Tar Heels, especially with third-team middle linebacker Ayden Bonilla getting the start in Charlottesville due to starter Andre Smith’s first-half suspension following a targeting call against Miami.
“I think we've gotten a little bit better [against the run] each and every week,” Larry Fedora said. “And so Virginia gives you a little unique deal with the big splits and the offensive line and the things that they are trying to do in the running game. So it adds a little bit to what you have to do scheme-wise defensively. Our guys are going to have to make tackles in space. That's going to be the big thing.”
Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert has completed 139-of-243 passes for 1,733 yards and 14 touchdowns, although he has thrown seven interceptions, including one in each game. That bodes well for a UNC defense that remains the lone FBS program without an interception in 2016.
UVa head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who represents the sixth first-year head coach UNC has faced in eight games, has seen growth in his program after a disastrous start highlighted by a 37-20 loss to FCS opponent Richmond. The Cavaliers have won two of their last three, and played Pittsburgh tough in a loss last weekend.
“I know where we are now and the road is still steep,” Mendenhall said. “It's still difficult. We have a lot of work ahead. There is a difference between being disappointed and defeated, and our players are disappointed that they didn't win last week, but certainly not defeated.”
A UNC win on Saturday would mark its seventh straight win over Virginia and improve Fedora’s record against the Cavaliers to 7-0 all-time.