Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Football At North Carolina

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The Virginia football team is 4-1.
Chris Peace and the Hoos are in pursuit of their fourth straight win. ~ Mike Ingalls

The Virginia football team owns a 4-1 record this season and started ACC play last week with a 28-21 victory against Duke. This is the best start to a season since 2007 when that team won seven games in a row as part of a Gator Bowl run. The Hoos own their first three-game winning streak since 2011 as well.

All of that has captured the interest of fans, bowl predictors, analysts like Mel Kiper Jr., reporters, and more. Still, UVA hasn’t made a bowl since that 2011 season. As senior linebacker Micah Kiser quickly reminded everyone, that included a 4-2 start in 2014 that quickly withered into a four-game losing streak and a 5-7 record short of bowl eligibility.

Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said the growing interest and praise should be appreciated, but managed.

“It’s a test of maturity,” Mendenhall said. “All these circumstances create teachable moments and new lessons. I think the masterful coaches and the ones that are really intentional are looking for those lessons, not just to help their football team, but to help young men manage their lives. That’s what’s going to happen. There will be successes and failures all along their life.

“I like to be not too high and not too low and just consistent so the players know what it’s going to be like every day,” he continued. “There is routine, there is structure, there is accountability, there is discipline. I expect effort, and I like them coming back to a sense of normalcy but with high expectations. I think that’s the best way for them to understand, no matter how many pats they’re getting on the back, wherever they’re getting them, as soon as they walk through the doors, it’s back to a precise and certain level of expectations and accountability. And I think that adds a sense of normalcy to handling it all.”

The Cavaliers hope to recapture some of the road magic they put on display at Boise State before the bye week. In that game, they rolled to a 42-23 win behind a good across-the-board performance from the offense, defense, and special teams.

On the other side, North Carolina has stumbled to a 1-5 start behind a cascade of injuries. That includes a three-game losing streak and back-to-back games with lopsided scores. Georgia Tech posted a 33-7 victory, while Notre Dame prevailed 33-10. The combination of Virginia’s recent success and Carolina’s recent struggles is enough to make many Cavalier fans nervous.

Mendenhall has cautioned his team not to get caught up in UNC’s record or UVA’s winning streak.

“They’re a capable team,” Mendenhall said. “It’s still so early. It’s early for rankings. It’s early for records. It’s early for anything. I think, if you take maybe their game against Duke and our game against Duke, they were very similar. North Carolina was driving to take the lead, and then Duke intercepted it and ran it back for a touchdown. That was in the fourth quarter. The game was very even. It was highly contested and, I think, fairly matched. So if you look at our game which was very similar to that, this isn’t a matter of capability. They’ve played good teams. They’re relatively young at some of the spots. They’ve had some injuries. But none of that means they’re less capable.”

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Big Trends

1. Stopping the run. The Virginia defense continues to be stingy against the run this season. Through five games, the Hoos allow 129.4 yards per game, good enough for 42nd nationally, and 3.61 yards per carry, good enough to tie for 39th nationally. They’ve yet to allow a 100-yard rusher on the season and UConn is the only FBS team to surpass 150 yards rushing against the defense. UVA ranks No. 27 in the country for first down run defense, allowing just 3.57 yards per carry. That’s a contributing factor to the success with third down defense this season (11th nationally) because teams are landing in 3rd-and-medium or third-and-long situations more often. The Tar Heels feature average 133 rushing yards per game.

2. Kurt Benkert on third down. The Virginia starting quarterback is putting together a good season with 1,431 yards passing, 13 touchdowns, and only three interceptions. He’s thrown for three touchdowns or more in all four wins this season. With all of that said, Benkert’s best may be showing up on third down. He’s 35-of-55 passing on third down (63%) with 25 first down completions plus two touchdowns. Even when the down and distance favor the defense, he’s been good – on 3rd-and-6 or greater, he’s 31 of 51 (61 percent) with 22 first down passes and two touchdowns.

3. Doni Dowling in the end zone. Dowling drew a lot of attention and some criticism for his somersault into the end zone last week against Duke. That discussion aside, the senior receiver has come up big during this three-game winning streak with a touchdown catch in all three victories. Against UConn, he pulled in a 42-yarder. Against Boise State, he scored from 27 yards out. Against Duke, he scored both second half touchdowns (5 and 17 yards) that put Virginia in the winner’s circle. Over these three games, Dowling is averaging 4.3 catches and 75.7 receiving yards per game.

Three Big Questions

1. Can UVA snap its losing streak vs. UNC? A lot of chatter gets devoted to the streak against the other rivals, but Virginia has lost seven straight games to Carolina. The last win came in Al Groh’s final season by a 16-3 score in Chapel Hill. The seven losses haven’t been pretty for the most part either, coming by 34, 11, 24, 31, 1, 13, and 21 points. That’s an average losing margin of 19.3 points per game. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora has never lost to Virginia (7-0). This year’s team has turned things in the right direction in a lot of ways during its 4-1 start, but getting back in the winner’s circle against UNC would be a huge boost to the growing enthusiasm around the program.

2. Will Jordan Ellis crack the century mark? Over the past three games, the junior running back has posted 95, 93, and 96 yards on the ground. That consistency stems, in part, from the fact that he’s become UVA’s workhorse back with 20, 24, and 25 carries in those three games. He’ll get a shot at a struggling North Carolina defense this weekend that allows 241.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 122nd nationally out of 130 teams. Notre Dame, Louisville, and Georgia Tech each had two players surpass the 100-yard barrier against the Heels.

3. What role will special teams play? North Carolina features the ACC’s leading punter in Tom Sheldon and the leading kick returner in Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Sheldon averages 46.4 yards per punt, but he left last week’s game against Notre Dame with an injury and did not return. Ratliff-Williams averages 27.9 yards per kick return; he too left the game last week with an injury, but made it back to the field. (He also posted five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame.) On UVA’s side of the ledger, the special teams units have been inconsistent. The Hoos gave up a punt return touchdown against Indiana and nearly gave up a kickoff return score last week against Duke after a penalty forced the kickoff backward. But, the punt team and cover units helped flip field position several times in the win against the Devils too. Carolina is a team reeling with injuries, but costly momentum-swinging plays on the road in Chapel Hill could give them a boost so Virginia hopes its ready to go on special teams.

Three Big Foes

1. Quarterback Chazz Surratt. A redshirt freshman, Surratt stepped in as the starter for the second game of the season. He’s completed 100 of 170 passes (58.8%) for 1,167 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also rushed for 179 yards and four touchdowns. Surratt set North Carolina high school state records with 16,593 total yards and 229 career scores responsible for (passing/rushing/receiver). While he’s a threat to run the football – UVA did better covering that piece of the defensive puzzle against Duke with the exception of one drive – the Tar Heels also give up a lot of sacks. They’ve allowed 13 sacks, tied for 85th in the nation.

2. Running back Jordon Brown. The sophomore leads the team in rushing yards with 297 on 65 carries (4.6 yards per carry) and in receptions with 20 for 125 yards (6.2 yards per catch). After missing practice time earlier in the season, he’s getting into a better rhythm now per the running backs coach. Most of his production (123 yards and 2 TDs) came against ODU to date, but he had a solid outing against Georgia Tech (including 9 catches for 57 yards).

3. Linebacker Cayson Collins. The senior has set either a season-high or a career-high for tackles in three straight games. Against Duke, he posted seven tackles for what was then his season high. He followed that up with a new career-high 12 tackles against Georgia Tech, but bested that with 15 stops against Notre Dame last Saturday. He’s second on the team with 49 tackles for the season, which is behind only fellow linebacker Cole Holcomb’s 54 stops. Collins finished with 60 tackles in all of 2017.

Hey Remember When …

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