If you are a head football coach heading into a season while strapped to the proverbial hot seat, the last thing you want to do is drop your season opener to a FCS program like William & Mary. But that's exactly what Al Groh did on Sept. 5, dropping a 26-14 decision to his in-state adversary. New offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon's spread-option look coughed up seven turnovers in that defeat, and things didn't get much better in the following loss to TCU.
But Groh has remained calm and focused during the first four weeks of the season, as evidenced by his willingness to reconfigure his offense to fit his talent – it's hard to run a spread offense when your offensive line and tight ends are molded in pro-style schemes. The changes nearly paid off against Southern Miss, as the Cavaliers dropped a 37-34 thriller in Hattiesburg, Miss.
For Groh, it no longer matters that his program is 0-3 in non-conference play. What's important is that ACC play begins against North Carolina on Saturday, and the Hoos are looking to move to 1-0 in the Coastal Division. It can only help that the Cavaliers enjoyed a bye week in preparing for the Tar Heels. In Groh's eight full seasons at Virginia, UVa has won nine of 14 contests following an off week.
"[It] certainly revealed that there's probably far too many teams and players that are anointed way too early in the season and far too many teams and players that are condemned too early in the season to see the significant turnarounds that occur in so many games -- that a season is to played out rather than to be seen in microcosm. I realize that's not the reality of the way things seem, but that's the reality of the way things go." – Groh, when asked about the ACC's wins and losses this past weekend
"Like everything else, we want to see it get better and that's pretty much the way we feel about our team." Groh, when asked about UVa's ground game
"A lot of guys on the team kind of have a bad taste in their mouths because of the expectations we had for ourselves and for this team. We didn't see ourselves losing so early. A lot of guys are angry and mad." – UNC quarterback T.J. Yates
The term "athlete" is thrown around college football far too often, but Virginia senior Vic Hall may serve as the perfect example. In the season-opening loss to William & Mary, the Gretna, Va. native logged minutes at quarterback (2-of-5 passing for seven yards), tailback (54 rushing yards on eight carries), punt returner (14 yards on three returns) and kick returner (five yards on one return). Last season, Hall tallied 59 tackles, two interceptions and five forced fumbles from his cornerback position.
But those immense talents have been sidelined the past several weeks after Hall took a shot to the hip from a Tribe defensive lineman in the season opener. Speculation has arisen about the length of time that Hall will be out, but when asked on Monday if he would need surgery, Groh responded, "Not at the present time."
It's also worth noting that Hall has not been listed as "out" of either of the past two games on the injury report and that he dressed out for both losses and participated in limited pre-game warm-ups.
But if Hall is able to play against North Carolina on Saturday, in what capacity will it be? Jameel Sewell's play at quarterback against Southern Miss would seem to indicate that he's got a strong grasp on the quarterback spot, and Hall was moved to the offensive side of the ball for a reason, thus suggesting that a move back to cornerback would be unlikely.
One thing is for certain – if and when Hall steps onto the Kenan Stadium field this Saturday, the Tar Heels better be prepared and be aware of his location at all times.
Matchups to Watch
Virginia's Jameel Sewell vs. North Carolina's defense
Regardless of how well Everett Withers' defensive unit has played through four games this season, there is likely a lack of excitement in team meetings this week in determining how to defend quarterback Jameel Sewell. The red-shirt senior is back under center after missing the '07 season due to academics, and he almost single-handedly led the Cavaliers to a late rally against Southern Miss two weeks ago. He ran or passed for 69 of UVa's 78 offensive plays and totaled 335 yards of offense, and currently leads the conference in total plays per game.
If those statistics don't provide enough reason for why this Tar Heel defense should be concerned, maybe a glance down memory lane will. The last three mobile FBS quarterbacks that UNC has faced – N.C. State's Russell Wilson, West Virginia's Pate White and Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt – combined for 902 total yards of offense and seven touchdowns.
North Carolina's defense is currently ranked 14th nationally in total defense (250.5 tpg), third in tackles for loss (9.25), and 17th in passing efficiency defense (96.0). But against Nesbitt and the Yellow Jackets, the defense struggled to control the line of scrimmage, allowing 317 rushing yards as Georgia Tech converted 10 of 19 third-down opportunities.
"That's bad defense," cornerback Kendric Burney said. "We weren't real happy, but as a veteran team we know exactly what we have to do to bounce back. We have to do the little things."
It helps that Virginia has struggled in protecting Sewell, ranking 120th in sacks allowed (4.33) after giving up just 16 sacks in '08. And if the distant past is any indication, the Tar Heels can take solace in the fact that they contained Sewell (11-of-17 for 96 passing yards, minus-21 rushing yards, 4 sacks) in the 22-20 loss to Virginia back in '07.
North Carolina's offense vs. Virginia's 3-4 defensive scheme
Much of last week's press clippings centered around UNC's efforts to decipher the puzzle that is Paul Johnson's multidimensional rushing attack. That offense garners more attention than most others because it's a rarity in the college game, and the same holds true for Groh's 3-4 defense.
The Cavaliers' pro-style scheme was hit hard with the loss of three of its four linebacker standouts from last fall in Clint Sintim, Jon Cooper and Antonio Appleby, and the numbers have suffered – UVa ranks 58th in total defense (344.33 ypg) and 102nd in rushing defense (180.7 ypg). But the Cavaliers have allowed just 12 third-down conversions in 45 attempts (T-14).
North Carolina counters with the 106th-worst third-down conversion rate in the country at 29.4 percent (15-of-51).
The Tar Heels rank 106th nationally in total offense (307.5 ypg) and 89th in scoring offense (22.5 ppg), but more troubling is the lack of execution and focus that was rampant in the 24-7 loss to Georgia Tech. Each position group was saddled with mistakes and missed opportunities, and it doesn't exactly inspire confidence when no one was able to provide a legitimate reason for those errors during Monday's press conference.
If there was one good sign following the defeat in Atlanta, it's the fact that quarterback T.J. Yates, wide receiver Greg Little and left tackle Kyle Jolly attempted to grab the offensive reins and implored their teammates to step up and perform.
"There were certain guys who said that they had had enough of this kind of up-and-down offense that we've been having," Yates said. "We've got to be more consistent. We've got to do things right every game and every play. We've got to put our best stuff out on the field every game that we go out there and be there one day and not the next… It was a couple of the older guys that had been around here for a while [that spoke out] and have a voice on the team."