Priorities, Picks, & Power Players – UNC

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For each game this season, The Sabre will present a final peek at the week’s match-up with a new feature called Priorities, Picks, and Power Players. In the “Priorities” section, we take a look at the keys to a Virginia victory. In the “Picks” section, Sabre Editor Kris Wright and another Sabre representative make a case for who will win and give you a final score. In the “Power Players” section, The Sabre predicts who some of the key players could be for that Saturday’s showdown.

Take a look at UNC!

Priorities

1. Stop the run. TCU and Southern Miss piled up 203 and 214 rushing yards, respectively. Even William & Mary cracked the 100-yard barrier with 125 rushing yards. No, the Tar Heels haven’t dominated on the ground yet this season, but they average a respectable 115.2 yards per game. The Hoos can’t let another opponent grind ’em up on the ground.

2. Pressure the QB. Virginia has 5 total sacks so far in 2009 and just 0 quarterback hurries; that’s an average of 1.7 sacks and 0 QB hurries per game. After averaging 2.4 sacks and 1.1 hurries in 2008 and 3.3 sacks and 5.5 hurries in 2007, it’s clear that the pressure is down for UVa in 2009. Turn up the heat and help the talented secondary make more plays.

3. Hidden yardage. As Greg Waters pointed out in his Southern Miss Stock Report, UVa is struggling on special teams. After that loss, the Cavaliers ranked 117th in the nation in kickoff returns, 118th in kickoff coverage, 69th in punt returns and 50th in punt coverage. In other words, opponents are routinely winning the hidden yardage-field position battle. UNC can be dangerous in the return game so breakdowns could be costly again.

4. Handle the front four. North Carolina won’t be a blitz-heavy team if it doesn’t have to be. Thanks to the front four, the Tar Heels can choose to play that way. E.J. Wilson , Marvin Austin, Cam Thomas, and Robert Quinn can be dominant. So far, the foursome has combined for 59 tackles including 11 Tackles For Loss and 4 sacks. UVa’s O-Line looked better at Southern Miss, but stumbled more in the second half. This is a key match-up to watch.

Picks

KRIS ON THE TAR HEELS

I’m sure you’ve heard or read this week – maybe even on this very site – that Virginia has been on a roll in this series with North Carolina. The Hoos have won six of the last seven meetings; that includes victories in the past two contests, a narrow 22-20 win in Chapel Hill in 2007 and a 16-13 overtime win in Charlottesville last season. You probably know that Al Groh is 6-2 as UVa’s head coach against UNC. Not to mention that Groh’s teams are 9-4 after bye weeks during his Cavalier tenure.

In other words, if there’s a situation that could help Virginia to get its first win, this is it – coming out of a bye week vs. an opponent that you play well against. If only it were that easy.

This match-up comes down the trenches. UVa’s O-Line has struggled, but looked better at Southern Miss with a tight end and fullback helping with blocking duties (both running and passing). UNC’s offensive line is battling injuries and not playing very well either. The Cavaliers’ defensive line has been serviceable, but it has not been making game-altering plays; the D-Line hasn’t helped the linebackers be big-time playmakers either. For the Tar Heels, their front four has been nasty and the quartet is capable of dominating a game by itself. So where does that leave us? Two struggling offensive lines with just one defensive line that can take advantage of the situation. I see UNC’s defense dominating this contest and keeping UVa’s offense in check. Still, the Heels have to score to win – and that’s been a problem so far. I think the hosts will make a big play on special teams to help out and Carolina will find a way to manufacture enough on the scoreboard.

Beyond all of that talk, there’s one last factor working against Virginia. Emotion. North Carolina is not happy about that lopsided showing last week against Georgia Tech. The Heels know another loss to a Coastal Division foe could end any hopes of winning the division. They’ve got three straight home games starting this week and know they can get some momentum going with a big performance. And the Cavaliers? We’ve seen how the Hoos handle emotion, particularly on all business road trips. I’m not convinced they’ll bring the fire necessary to pull off an upset. In the end, it’s a physical, sluggish game … and Carolina wins.

UNC 20, UVa 10 – Kris Wright, Sabre Editor

GREG ON THE TAR HEELS

North Carolina’s defense has been pretty stout all season until it ran into Paul Johnson’s bunch out of Atlanta last week. After holding three of the worst offenses in the nation to less than 250 yards, the Tar Heel defense was exposed last weekend. I think the Hoos can exploit that same defense. As Jameel Sewell has gotten back into game rhythm, the offensive line has adjusted a little more to the blocking scheme and the receivers are improving the precision of their routes and gaining confidence – look for the tempo of the offense to pick up and look for Gregg Brandon to open up the play-calling this week.

So, to me, the question is not can Virginia score, the question is can they stop the UNC run game? As I noted in the Southern Miss Stock Report “The Cavaliers allowed 203 yards rushing to TCU and 214 to Southern Miss. You have to go back to the 2002 season to find the last time the Cavaliers gave up back-to-back, 200-yard rushing games.” Clearly the defense is wearing down late as Virginia has surrendered 3.18 yards per carry rushing in the first three quarters of games and 6.92 in the fourth quarter. In fact, opponents have only 41 fewer rushing yards in the three final quarters than in the earlier nine. The Heels have been held to less than 100 yards rushing in five of their last eight ball games and have lost four of those. The lone win came this season in a 12-10 victory over Connecticut. Run defense will be huge Saturday. Look for the Hoos to trust their outstanding defensive secondary and crowd the box with eight or nine men. I would not be surprised to see some nickel on running downs with a safety filling a linebacker role to compensate for the poor coverage effort of the middle unit. Virginia has several defensive backs that are excellent in run support and can handle the linebacker role.

Another way to stop the run is to keep opponents out of second- or third-and-short situations. Virginia will need to hold the UNC passing game down on first down. The Heels complete 70% of their first down attempts and average 9.9 yards a catch. That’s going to mean Virginia’s linebackers must have a significant improvement in their pass coverage performance from the first three weeks. If the Cavaliers can limit UNC effectiveness on first down, they can take advantage of a big edge on third down where Carolina coverts just 29.4% (106th nationally) of its attempts while UVa is 11th in the nation by holding opponents to a 26.7 third down conversion rate.

In the preseason schedule preview, I picked the Hoos to lose this game. I reserve the right to revise my remarks. Look for a major improvement in the Virginia running game this week, which should lead to some better ball control numbers, a fresher fourth quarter defense and a better showing against the run. I see an upset coming in Chapel Hill.

UVa 31, UNC 20 – Greg Waters, Sabre Contributor

Power Players

Jack Shields. No. 4 in the Priorities section above focuses on the match-up between UVa’s offensive line and UNC’s defensive line. In order for the Hoos to win some of the battles, the interior linemen led by Jack Shields will have to deal with the Heel’s tough tackles. If Carolina’s DTs get a lot of push, it will be a long day for Virginia’s offense.

Corey Mosley . Virginia’s starting safety has had a run of bad luck – or bad decisions depending on your viewpoint – with three key penalties in the first three games. Corey Mosley is an asset at safety, but he needs to eliminate the big mistakes.

Kris Burd . Kris Burd leads UVa’s receivers in receptions and receiving yards. His 12 receptions equal the next two wideouts’ total combined (Jared Green has 7 and Javaris Brown has 5). Look for Burd to be a big part of the passing game again this week.

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