Fans are not sure which offense will take the field against their northern-border rivals – the squad that rolled up 433 yards and posted 31 points against East Carolina two weeks ago, or the unit that managed just 154 yards of total offense and played less than 18 minutes against the Yellow Jackets, thanks in large part to a 1-of-11 third-down conversion rate.
"A lot of the guys on the team kind of have a bad taste in their mouths," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "The expectations for ourselves as a team going into this season, we didn't see ourselves losing so early, so a lot of guys are pretty angry, pretty [ticked] off, and I think that's going to help us."
Against two BCS-level opponents in Connecticut and Georgia Tech, UNC's offense has been putrid in seven of the eight quarters of action. That has to change on Saturday if the Tar Heels are hoping to avoid becoming Virginia's first win of the season. The Hoos are allowing 344.3 yards (58th nationally) and 31.0 points (100th) per game, but head coach Al Groh's 3-4 scheme presents a unique challenge for this struggling Tar Heel offense.
"This is a young football team that is very, very inexperienced on offense, and no matter what happened on last Saturday, we're going to have to play better because the challenges are going to get more significant," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "And they certainly were last week and this week."
If there is one unit between these two programs that stands tall above the rest, it's North Carolina's stout defense. Despite giving up 317 rushing yards and 10-of-19 third downs to Georgia Tech, defensive coordinator Everett Withers' squad ranks 14th nationally in yards (250.5) and 19th nationally (14.2) in points per game.
What makes those statistics even more impressive is that UNC stands 9th in the ACC (91st nationally) in turnover margin at minus-0.75. This defense led the nation in turnover margin through the midpoint of the '08 season, but has only forced seven turnovers in four games this fall .
"Turnovers are funny things; they come in bunches," Davis said. "Sometimes, all of a sudden, you start getting them in clusters, and hopefully, we start getting back on that track."
The Cavaliers scrapped their full transition to offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon's spread option after only two games, reverting back to key elements of Groh's pro-style approach in posting 34 points in a heartbreaking loss at Southern Miss two weeks ago. Mobile quarterback Jameel Sewell finally found his rhythm in Hattiesburg after missing the '08 season due to academics, running or passing for 69 of UVa's 78 offensive plays while totaling 335 yards of offense.
Virginia is actually worse than North Carolina in the turnover margin category, currently boasting a minus-1.67 mark (111th). Seven of the Cavaliers' 10 lost turnovers occurred in the season-opening loss to FCS opponent William & Mary.
This game is critical for both programs. A Virginia victory all but removes UNC from the Coastal Division conversation in Davis' third year in Chapel Hill, while a Tar Heel win adds another nail to Groh's coaching coffin. It definitely helps the Hoos that they were blessed with a bye week heading into this contest and that their ACC record is still 0-0, regardless of what happened during nonconference play.
"The reason that you're in a conference is to win the conference championship, and so that dominates over every other circumstance," said Groh, who is 9-5 after bye weeks at UVa. "Probably with this team, we hope that subsequent games will confirm this. We have seen progress in most phases of the team on a week-to-week basis, and with the installation of some of these new operations, we hope that, as I say, that it's a trend there in taking some time in getting these things installed and going the way we want them to."
North Carolina leads the overall series with Virginia, 57-52-4, but has lost three straight and nine of the last 11 to the Cavaliers.