With three losses in its last four games, including last week’s defeat at Louisville, it’s safe to say the University of Virginia football program has hit a rough stretch in the 2019 season. Still, the Cavaliers’ goal of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division is very much alive as the Hoos have a share of the division lead at 3-2. UNC (4-4) is tied with Virginia (5-3) atop the Coastal, giving extra importance to the South’s oldest rivalry, which resumes Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
For the second straight season, Virginia enters November in control of its own destiny in the division. In 2018 the Cavaliers were a surprising 6-2 prior to a home game versus Pittsburgh, which was the first of three ACC teams on the Hoos’ schedule in November. The Panthers captured a win in Scott Stadium on its way to winning the Coastal. Meanwhile, UVA dropped all three November ACC games while defeating Liberty at home to finish with a 7-5 regular season record.
Virginia entered this season as the media’s pick to win the division and face Clemson in the 2019 ACC Championship game. UNC is the final road game for Virginia, which closes out the regular season with three straight home games against Georgia Tech (2-5, 1-3 in the ACC), Liberty (5-3) and Virginia Tech (5-2, 2-2 in the ACC). Winning in November has proven problematic for the Cavaliers in the Bronco Mendenhall era – UVA is 2-10 in the month in the last three seasons. Winning on the road has also been difficult for UVA, which has just five road wins in 3-plus seasons. However, Saturday’s game in Chapel Hill represents a great chance for Virginia to exorcise its road demons while positioning itself for a possible strong November run.
Complementary football is Virginia’s formula for success. Unfortunately, one of the three areas has been lacking in the Cavaliers’ three losses. UVA has a formidable defense that is ranked no. 11 in the nation in total defense, though the Hoos will be without star linebacker Jordan Mack in the first half against UNC because he was flagged for targeting in the third quarter of last week’s loss at Louisville. Special teams, led by school record-setting kick returner Joe Reed, kicker Brian Delaney and punter Nash Griffin, is a good group. The offense, though, has failed to produce in Virginia’s three losses.
Turnovers, which Coach Mendenhall cited as a key issue during his weekly Monday press conference, cost the Hoos dearly against Notre Dame. Five turnovers, including one fumble recovery returned for a touchdown, doomed UVA on the road in South Bend. Virginia had just one turnover in the next game against Miami; however, the turnover was part of a general lack of success the Cavaliers had near or in the red zone. The Hoos were in the Miami 25 six times but came away with only nine points. Virginia had two costly turnovers last week at Louisville – an interception by Perkins in Louisville’s red zone that cost the visiting Cavaliers, who led 14-7 at the time, a chance to take a 10 or 14-point lead at halftime, and a Joe Reed second-half fumble that gave the Cardinals possession at the Virginia 34. Louisville would score to take a 21-14 lead.
The only consistency in four of the past five games is that the Virginia offense hasn’t been able to score points when needed, either to take control of a game or to capture close victories. UVA can’t run the football (105.5 rushing yards per game ranks no. 123 in the nation), which is putting tremendous pressure on quarterback Bryce Perkins and the passing game. Virginia will have find answers somewhere and post points to counter a potent UNC offense that is averaging 434 yards per game. True freshman quarterback Sam Howell has impressed and is a capable deep-ball thrower. The Tar Heel passing attack is averaging 13.32 yards per completion. Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are very capable running backs who will challenge the Cavalier run defense. Williams has three 100-yard rushing games to date, while Carter has rushed for over 90 yards three times.
UVA has won the last two against the Tar Heels, winning at Chapel Hill in 2017 and in Scott Stadium last season. This will be the first season the Mendenhall-led Cavaliers have taken on a UNC team now under the guidance of Mack Brown, who has the Tar Heels believing and playing well.
1. Playing Well Without Mack.
As mentioned above, Virginia will be without senior captain and star linebacker Jordan Mack in the first half against UNC. That leaves the Cavalier defense vulnerable to a fast start by the Tar Heels, who again feature a balanced offensive attack capable of putting up points. Virginia, which is expected to insert true freshman Nick Jackson into the starting lineup at Mack’s spot, can’t let the Tar Heels get off to a fast start for several reasons, most notably because of the Cavalier offense’s recent performances. Plus, assuming the game is close at halftime, Mack’s return could provide a big boost as the Hoos try and come away with a big win on the road.
2. Make UNC One Dimensional
True freshman Sam Howell has been very good for UNC, totaling 2,119 yards passing with 22 touchdowns and five interceptions in eight games. Against ACC teams he has thrown for 1,551 yards with 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. UNC has a good receiving corps led by receiver Dazz Newsome (no. 5 has 42 catches for 582 yards and six touchdowns, including 21 catches, 296 yards and four touchdowns in the past three games), Dyami Brown (no. 2 has 26 receptions, five touchdowns, and is averaging 18.35 yards per catch), and 6’3” Beau Corrales (no. 15 has 25 catches and five scores).
All that being said, in my opinion it’s important for Virginia to make UNC into a pass-only team. This will allow the UVA defense to do what it does best, which is pressure the quarterback. Howell has been impressive, but he has a completion percentage under 56% in three of his last four games and is coming off a 10-of-26 outing versus Duke in which he was picked off twice. If the Tar Heels get their rushing attack going with Williams and Carter, the pressure is off the talented freshman signal caller.
3. Touchdowns, Not Turnovers!
Eight turnovers in its last three road games have resulted in Virginia’s three losses to date. In those games, UVA has only scored five touchdowns – two at Notre Dame (both in the first half) and three at Louisville. North Carolina does not turn the ball over much (nine turnovers in eight games) and boasts talented offensive players, so it should put some points up. I believe the Virginia offense will need to score in the 20s to come away with a win.
Turnovers, the play calling, the offensive line, the lack of a running game … there is plenty of blame to go around, but Virginia has to put its offensive demons behind. Making things tougher for the Virginia offense is the potential return of three of UNC’s starting defensive backs Myles Wolfolk (safety), Storm Duck (cornerback) and Trey Morrison (cornerback). However, the offense has to find a way to execute and score on the road.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
It’s getting close to the point where you make a ‘don’t pick Virginia on the road’ rule. While the Hoos have shown improvement across the board including with road play in the Mendenhall tenure, the program still hasn’t crossed the threshold of being a consistent winner on the road. The question is: will this week be different?
There’s really only one reason to believe the answer might be yes: the team’s goals. UVA came into this season with three clear goals: win the Coastal Division, beat Virginia Tech, and win a bowl game. All three of those are still in play, but I believe the Coastal Division dreams would disappear with a loss in the final road game of the year. I think that might be enough motivation to find a way to get the job done this week. Everything else, however, points the opposite way. Recent road struggles, Bryce Perkins’ health, inconsistent line play, defensive attrition, and so on. UNC’s defense and depth are issues too so maybe some of that cancels out.
All in all, however, I’m making this pick based on one thing: belief. I think this team has what it takes to win this game and stay in the hunt for the division title. VIRGINIA 24, UNC 20. Season To Date: 5-3.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Virginia was in this position last season and knows how it feels to fall short. Despite the loss of Mack in the first half and the road struggles on offense, I expect this Cavalier team to play with tremendous urgency in what will be their final road game. A win wouldn’t guarantee anything – this is the ACC Coastal Division, after all – but it would put the Hoos in terrific position to accomplish its goal of winning the division. It’s almost now or never for Virginia, and I think the Hoos respond with a quality effort and a close, gritty win on the road. VIRGINIA 27, UNC 21. Season To Date: 4-4.