Head-to-Head: UNC-VT

What are the key battles to watch in Saturday's game against Virginia Tech? Inside Carolina takes a closer look at the five head-to-head matchups that will determine the outcome ...

1. UNC's Special Teams vs. VT's Special Teams

Virginia Tech is known for its "Beamer Ball" approach to special teams, which incorporates the best athletes in the program with a tenacious mentality to block kicks and punts, as well as using the return game to set up ideal field position.

Eddie Royal is the Hokie version of North Carolina's Brandon Tate, a versatile return man that will be on the mind of UNC kicker Connor Barth during kickoffs. Royal has the vision and quickness to potentially score every time that he touches the ball. The senior wide receiver is averaging 25.5 yards on kickoff returns and 15.0 yards on punt returns, including a 60-yard touchdown.

It will be instrumental for both Tar Heel return units that rank in the bottom half of the ACC to stay in their lanes and keep containment to prevent any game-changing big plays.

Tate, on the other hand, needs to continue his success on kick returns (26.9 yards per return) and take advantage of a rare Hokie return unit that has struggled through the first four games (19.0 ypr average ranks 94th nationally).

Head coach Butch Davis has been pleased with Tate's ability to make plays without committing any costly turnovers.

"Someone that has to return punts and kicks, they have such an enormous responsibility in the potential to change field position and also [in] the protection of the football, but Brandon has done a very, very good job of that for us thus far," Davis said.

North Carolina only hopes Virginia Tech's Jared Develli kicks the ball to him – the placekicker has eight touchbacks on the year, while also connecting on all four field goal attempts.

"I think [Jared's] doing okay," head coach Frank Beamer said. "I don't know his exact percentage he has in the end zone, but whether he's with the wind or against the wind usually affects that a little bit."

2. UNC's Defensive Line vs. VT's Offensive Line

While there was some speculation in the preseason that Virginia Tech's offensive line was suspect, no one expected the unit to be this bad. The Hokies have given up 14 sacks and 32 tackles for loss through four games. Even when discounting LSU's 48-7 thrashing of Virginia Tech three weeks ago, this offensive line still allowed 11 sacks and 24 tackles for loss against East Carolina, Ohio and William & Mary.

"There will be a technical problem, a fundamental problem, with one guy, and that causes a breakdown," offensive line coach Curt Newsome told the Washington Post on Thursday. "We just need to put it all together. When you've got five guys, one breakdown up front and people will think others haven't done anything. We've had too many of those."

To make matters worse, sophomore Brandon Holland will make his first start at right guard on Saturday, replacing Sergio Render, who will sit out the first quarter due to internal disciplinary actions.

Beamer said earlier this week that he believes this group - led by senior left tackle Duane Brown - is slowly improving.

"I thought our first group did some things better and some things we have to learn from," Beamer said. "I think that's just the whole key to our offense right now: to keep on working and improving, getting a little bit better each week and learning from what happens in the ballgame… but overall, I thought the effort was good. As long as the effort is good, I think we will continue to improve."

Defensive end Hilee Taylor leads the way for the Tar Heels with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss on the season, but the senior needs either E.J. Wilson (11 tackles, one sack) or Darrius Massenburg (seven tackles, one tackle for loss) to step up and help out at the other end position.

Freshman Marvin Austin (eight tackles, two tackles for loss) displayed an explosive first move against South Florida, and more of that penetration will be needed for the Tar Heels to disrupt freshman Tyrod Taylor's first ACC game under center for the Hokies.

3. UNC's Run Defense vs. Branden Ore

In what was expected to be an All America-type season for Branden Ore, the red-shirt junior is now just hoping to earn All-ACC honors following a mediocre at best start to the 2007 season. He has carried the ball 65 times for only 205 yards and two touchdowns, posting a 3.2 yards per carry average.

"We definitely need to pick it up a notch going into conference play," Ore told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph on Tuesday. "We practice hard every week. So any given time might be the moment for it. So you just never know. You've just got to keep practicing hard and hopefully things will change on Saturday."

The Tar Heels are not about ready to discount what Ore brings to the table, though – he rushed for 111 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries in the Hokies' 35-10 defeat of North Carolina in Kenan Stadium last September.

With the aforementioned Taylor taking snaps at quarterback, Beamer will place an emphasis on correcting the running game, as the Tar Heel run defense is allowing 151.25 yards per game. If North Carolina can limit Ore's yardage on first and second down, then the freshman QB will be forced to make plays on third down – and that's something Beamer does not want at this juncture.

But Beamer believes the offensive line is ready to open more holes for Ore to get back on track.

"Those cracks are getting ready to come," Beamer said. "Last year he came along and he had his 200-yard games about the fourth, fifth, or sixth game. So I think we're in a situation where we're in a little bit different offense and we've got to continue to improve."

4. UNC's Ground Game vs. VT's Front Seven

Virginia Tech's run defense only allowed 91.2 yards per game in 2006, but the Hokies gave up 439 yards on the ground in their first two games of 2007.

The Hokies have since held Ohio University and William & Mary to a combined 43 rushing yards, so the question entering Saturday's contest is this – has defensive coordinator Bud Foster fixed the early problems with his run defense, or was the recent success due to below-average competition?

Seniors Vince Hall (37 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss) and Xavier Adibi (32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) anchor an impressive linebacker corps, while defensive end Chris Ellis (14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) is stout up front.

"[Hall and Adibi] are two good football players that have a knack for getting to the football, they play like big-time players," Beamer said. "They both have good athletic ability, are nifty at getting around blockers."

North Carolina fans are hoping freshman Ryan Houston's solid debut against South Florida (43 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown) will jumpstart a lackluster Tar Heel rushing attack that is only averaging 79.5 yards. Davis was impressed with his rookie's performance last weekend.

"I said it [earlier this week] in a telephone interview that one of the things that he certainly did was he ran strong and he ran powerful and he ran with good vision," Davis said. "Hopefully that is the tip of the iceberg."

5. T.J. Yates vs. VT's Secondary

It needs to be said – T.J. Yates was due for a bad performance during his first season as North Carolina's starting quarterback. Following a three-game stretch in which the red-shirt freshman completed 58-of-88 passes for 901 and nine touchdowns, the Marietta, Ga. native came crashing back down to earth against South Florida, throwing for only 85 yards to go along with four interceptions.

Now for the bad news – Yates heads to Blacksburg this Saturday to face a team that ranks top-20 nationally in pass efficiency defense and has only allowed 188.25 yards through the air, in addition to recording 11 sacks.

The Tar Heel offense knows that the South Florida game troubles extend above and beyond Yates' shoulders. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said the unit has worked this week in practice to correct last weekend's issues.

"[We've] taken it back to the basics [and] the fundamentals - catching the ball, blocking, just [coming] back as one unit and performing to the best of our ability," Nicks said.

The standout sophomore also indicated that Yates has handled the difficulties well.

"He's still got a clear head and is keeping his focus," Nicks said. "He knows that's part of the game – it happens."

All-America cornerback Brandon Flowers (25 tackles, one interception) leads a strong back seven for Virginia Tech that specializes in man coverage, allowing blitzes to come from every possible angle. Kam Chancellor (20 tackles) has replaced NFL draft pick Aaron Rouse at the rover spot, and Victor "Macho" Harris (seven tackles, one interception) mans the other corner spot.

Yates may be still be having nightmares about the Jenkins/Williams cover corner combo that South Florida showcased last weekend, but Sports Illustrated tabbed Flowers and Harris as "maybe the finest cornerback duo in America."

Davis believes the linebackers present just as much of a challenge in the passing game as the defensive backs.

"The linebackers are without question ... the fastest, most athletic in the secondary," Davis said. "Those guys can hit and they can run."

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