North Carolina is one of the youngest teams in the ACC and it is playing its conference opener. Virginia has experience with a multitude of returning starters and won its league opener last week. Of course, the game is in Chapel Hill and that has to count against the Hoos. So how do the Cavaliers get a win? ESPN’s Wes McElroy gives you the keys in Wes’ Ways To Win.
THE BATTLE FOR FIELD POSITION
- How nice was it for Virginia to start its first offensive series on Duke’s 4-yard line last Saturday?
- How nerve-racking was it for Virginia to have Duke breathing down its neck 17-13 heading into the fourth quarter with Peter Lalich staring at 82 yards in front of him?
Field position can make or break a game. Last week, UNC used the field for seven points on its second possession of the second quarter after setting up shop at the ECU 49. The tide turned for the Pirates on their fourth possession of the same quarter, setting up at their 47 and heading into the end zone seven plays later. The hosts’ second possession after the half started at the UNC 38 and gave ECU its first lead of the day.
Meanwhile, Virginia survived Duke starting at the Cavaliers’ 34 when the visitors missed a field goal, but the Cavs couldn’t avoid handing the Devils 10 points after a bad snap on a punt led to a touchdown followed by a fumble on the kickoff that aided in three more third quarter points.
Week 3 features North Carolina’s Connor Barth, who has the ability to boot the ball from another level. Barth has already connected from 39 yards this year and was 2 for 2 from each category last season: 30-40 yards, 40-50 yards, and 50+. Return threat Brandon Tate got off and running with a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown in last week’s loss. Tate is averaging 33.3 yards per kickoff return this young season and eight career touchdowns-3 receiving, 3 on kickoff returns, and 2 punts.
In other words, the Heels can take advantage of good field position. UVa must control this category for most of the game in order to pick up a road win.
AVOIDING THE BIG TOUCHDOWN
“Clearly we have to start out with the mentality that we can’t afford to give up one-play touchdowns. They’ve got one guy who’s been responsible for that in dual ways. Tate’s got three of them as a receiver and one of them as a kick returner,” said Groh on Tuesday. “[It’s] difficult to determine which one is more challenging to control them in. Special teams is such a scrambled situation that you can practice, practice, practice and a lot just depends on what happens after the ball is in the air.”
Got to go with Groh on this one. Virginia busted any chance of Duke enforcing its game plan when Vic Hall set up the Cavaliers’ first score on the fifth play of the game. They tried to shatter the Blue Devils’ when Cedric Peerman followed his blockers 58 yards into the end zone only four minutes later.
The Tar Heels are no strangers to coming out of the gate with an explosive tone. In week one, quarterback T.J. Yates unloaded his first college pass for a 68-yard touchdown score to Brooks Foster on the third play of the game against James Madison. Yates first pass last Saturday was a screen for 53 yards that set up UNC’s first field goal of the day.
That explosive tone wasn’t relegated to just the Tar Heels offense. Tate’s 58-yard punt return couldn’t have come at a better time on Saturday night as North Carolina trailed ECU heading into the fourth quarter; the return helped send it into overtime.
The Cavaliers learned the hard way last season that with one play the game can get away from you and get away quick. The defense’s Achilles’ heel was the big play last year, which broke games open at Pitt and Georgia Tech. Giving up big plays to Carolina could spell disaster as well.
SECONDARY PLAY AND DEFENSIVE RUSH
North Carolina wide receivers Brandon Tate, Brooks Foster, and Hakeem Nicks have already totaled 19 receptions for 390 yards and six touchdowns in just two games. Nicks leads the pack with 8 catches for 98 yards. Foster has hauled in two touchdowns and Tate has three, including a two-score performance last weekend.
“They are very explosive offensively. The three receivers – Foster, Nicks, and Tate – are very explosive,” said Groh. “They’ve had seven or eight plays this year over 50 yards already. A lot of it is off of some very intricate schemes and a lot of play action to try to minimize the rush on the quarterback.”
Yates has started off his year proving Butch Davis wise on his quarterback decision. He is 33 of 50 for 562 yards and 6 touchdowns. Yates currently leads the conference in passing efficiency.
With Yates and the receiver trio clicking, cornerback play (especially Vic Hall who will be on the short end of height match-ups again this week) as well as safety play are important. Nate Lyles , Byron Glaspy, and Jamaal Jackson , who is coming off one of his better career games, must be at their best in this one.
But Virginia’s defensive backs can’t do it alone. The Hoos will need pressure up front against a North Carolina O-Line that has only allowed 3 sacks in two games. Chris Long , Allen Billyk , and Jeffrey Fitzgerald need to aid in the day or it’ll be an exhausting afternoon for the secondary.
Prediction: North Carolina 7, Virginia 5…….just kidding. North Carolina 21 Virginia 17.
Wes McElroy is a sports talkshow host for ESPN 840 AM in Charlottesville. The Final Round with Wes McElroy airs week days from 4 to 6 p.m. Listen live on the Web site.