Two weeks ago, Virginia (3-3, 1-1 ACC) was widely considered to be one of the worst BCS programs in the nation. The Cavaliers were expected to struggle this season after losing 12 starters that included the NFL's No. 2 overall draft pick in defensive end Chris Long, and parting ways with starting quarterback Peter Lalich in September due to off-the-field problems didn't exactly help UVa's misfortunes.
Head coach Al Groh, in his 8th season in Charlottesville, watched his team get decimated by Southern California (52-7), Connecticut (45-10) and Duke (31-3) during the first four weeks of the season, while eeking out a 16-0 victory over FCS member Richmond. But a funny thing happened when Maryland strolled into town on Oct. 4 – instead of enduring the massive amount of body blows, Virginia started to dish them out. The Cavs trounced the Terrapins, 31-0, before defeating East Carolina, 35-20, last weekend.
It's worth noting that Virginia's opponents combine for a 23-12 record, and its schedule ranks as the 8th-toughest in the country, according to USA TODAY's Jeff Sagarin.
"I think I'm getting more comfortable as time goes on here. But the offense is just improving. I'm not the only one improving out there. It's a team game, and everyone's getting better. The execution's been great the last two weeks, and the defense has been lights out." – UVa quarterback Marc Verica (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
"Anybody that's a significant playmaker for your football team, you've got to find somebody that can step up. We've got some options. There are some guys who we're going to take a look at and talk to and see what kind of roles that they can do. There won't be one guy this week. Or maybe one guy three weeks from now or two guys two weeks from now. It may take a committee of two, three, four or five guys who'll know that they'll come in and do some things for us." – UNC head coach Butch Davis on finding a replacement for Brandon Tate
"It's about growth. Now Marc has been in four games, we have young players who are gaining experience. Cedric [Peerman] is back and going for us and everyone is sticking together, seeing that there is going to be light at the end. We're into the tunnel and we're seeing some real progress." – Groh on his team's recent turnaround
Cedric Peerman could only watch the devastation that was occurring on the field against Connecticut and Duke. Two programs better known for their basketball programs would combine to outscore Virginia by 63 points, and the senior running back couldn't do anything to stop the beatings.
Peerman had suffered a bruised knee against Richmond on Sept. 6, and despite rushing two times against UConn, the Gladys, Va. native did not play at during the Duke debacle.
If you're looking for the catalyst of Virginia's recent turnaround, then Peerman is your man. Once deemed healthy enough, he started against Maryland, running the ball 17 times for 110 yards and a touchdown.
"To have Cedric back essentially, for all intents and purposes, for the first time this season, as everybody could see, made a great difference," Groh said following the 31-0 shocking victory over the Terrapins.
And in case anyone thought that game was a fluke, Peerman – a 100-meter state champion in high school – broke off runs of 78 and 60 yards last weekend against East Carolina to give the Cavaliers an early 28-6 lead. He would finish with 173 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, giving UVa back-to-back games with rushing totals over the 200-yard mark.
"Cedric Peerman clearly stood out on those big plays," Groh said following the ECU win. "Great effort plays that showed what kind of great speed he has, but when a guy gets to run that far, there are a lot of awards to pass out. There were an awful lot of good blocks to get him around the end there."
Despite being sidelined for nearly half of the season thus far, Peerman is averaging 7.2 yards per carry and ranks fifth in the ACC with 75.8 rushing yards per game, in addition to leading the conference running backs in receptions (4.4 rpg).
Former third-string quarterback Marc Verica has clearly benefited from Peerman's return, completing 50 of his 66 attempts for 442 yards, three touchdowns and just two interceptions. For North Carolina's "bend-but-don't-break" defense to continue to force turnovers (14 INT leads the nation), the Tar Heels must contain Peerman to put pressure on his quarterback.
But in Peerman's view, he's already seen enough of UVa's opponents picking on his teammates.
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Offense vs. Virginia's 3-4 Defensive Scheme
Cam Sexton (38-of-67 passing for 560 yards, 3 TD and 1 INT) continues to perform admirably in T.J. Yates' absence for the Tar Heels, but he will face a defensive scheme on Saturday that he hasn't seen since being benched in Charlottesville nearly two years ago – the 3-4 set.
Rarely used in college football these days, Groh's use of the 3-4 scheme stems from his days in the NFL. With only three down linemen, the 3-4 relies on the two outside linebackers to serve a dual role in both pass-rushing and coverage responsibilities.
"Defensively, it looks like playing the New York Giants all over again," Davis said. "A 3-4 defense with very big, physical and unbelievably good and fundamentally sound technicians. They run a 3-4 defense as well as anybody."
Groh keeps using the 3-4, because, well, it works. The Cavaliers are tied for second in the ACC and 11th in the FBS with 18 sacks (3.0 per game), and the scheme is responsible for holding 22 opponents to below 100 yards rushing since 2004, including four teams this season – Duke (84), Maryland (79) and East Carolina (89) and Richmond (19).
Virginia's linebackers typically excel in the 3-4, and this season is no different. Seniors Antonio Appleby (46 tackles), Jon Copper (44 tkl) and Clint Sintim (37 tkl) lead the team in tackles and Sintim leads the ACC with eight sacks (5th nationally).
For North Carolina's offense to succeed on Saturday, Shaun Draughn will have to continue his emergence in the backfield. With 200 yards and a touchdown on a 5.6 yards per carry average over his past two contests, the red-shirt sophomore has made Sexton's job that much easier under center. And against a new defensive scheme, Sexton will need to rely on his ground game until he grows comfortable with seeing the field.
"We have to run the ball a little better against a 3-4, because they can get guys into coverage," Sexton said. "I've got a better understanding of the outside linebackers and how they're going to play in the field in what we call fire zones and blitz zones."
UNC's Special Teams vs. Virginia's Special Teams
Saturday's matchup was setting up to be a perfect occasion to add to Brandon Tate's highlight reel, as Virginia has struggled recently in its kicking game. But now with Tate out for the season, the focus turns to how North Carolina will replace the program's all-time best returner.
Backup cornerback Johnny White slid into Tate's spot alongside Hakeem Nicks on the kickoff return unit last weekend, but Davis was not showing his hand on Monday on what permanent changes will be made in the return game.
"I told the players (Sunday) after we finished watching the special-teams film that there's going to be some guys that we're going to ask more out of you, Davis said. "We're going to need you to step up and give us plays or minutes or time or roles."
The Cavaliers' kicking unit is probably breathing a sigh of relief knowing that they will not have to worry about Tate as a returner, but their problems go beyond what their opponents are doing.
Virginia ranks 96th in kickoff return defense (23.7 ypr) and 35th in punt return defense (6.0 ypr). Last weekend against East Carolina, Jimmy Howell averaged 34.3 yards per punt and the Pirates averaged 28.3 yards on kickoff returns.
Groh called out his kicking units during his Sunday night teleconference, saying, "We have to improve with our kicking of the ball in all phases."
* This rivalry is the fifth-most played series in the country at 112 games. These programs have met every year since 1919.
* Groh was an assistant coach (defensive ends) at North Carolina from 1973-77 under Bill Dooley.
* Carolina is 11-4 as a ranked team against Virginia.
* Since 2001 (the arrival of Al Groh), Virginia is tied with Maryland for the most home wins (37) among ACC teams.