Virginia Football Returns Home To Face No. 15 North Carolina

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A win over no. 15 North Carolina would be quite a treat for University of Virginia football program, which has seen its share of tricks in the month of October. The Hoos have lost all four October contests heading into Saturday’s Halloween night matchup with a Tar Heel team (4-1) that rolled to a 48-21 victory over NC State last week.

Could a return home be the boost Virginia football needs to get back in the win column in 2020? We’ll find out on Halloween night when the Hoos take on no. 15 North Carolina. Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The Virginia defense looked more like the stingy unit we expected at the start of the season in a 19-14 loss at Miami last Saturday, but the Cavaliers will have their hands full against an offense that features one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks in sophomore Sam Howell, two of the nation’s most productive running backs in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and dynamic wide receiver Dyami Brown as the headliner of a speedy, talented group of wide receivers.

Through five games, Howell has passed for 1,403 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions, Carter (160.4) and Williams (152.4 yards) are averaging 150+ all-purpose yards per game, and Brown is averaging 16.71 yards per catch while totaling 24 receptions. That’s a lot of talent for the Cavalier D to account for.

“So, man when you have returning talent, with that much production, and the system that’s preparing them, certainly,” Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall answered when asked if this year’s North Carolina offense is better than the one that posted 31 points and 539 yards of offense against UVA last season. “Because of more experience and the chemistry continues and so the amount of points and productivity is more likely to continue, right? That’s why it’s so great to have returning quarterback every year. But then if you happen to have running backs and receivers also, that’s a man it’s a blessing. Rarely does it happen with that number of players coming back. So, yes, I think they’re better. It’s one of the main contributing factors for their success.”

UVA welcomed sophomore starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong back to the lineup against Miami, and he responded with his first interception-free outing in four games started this season. Armstrong tallied 272 yards of offense (181 passing, 91 rushing) but the offense once again struggled to put up points, something they will have to rectify if they want to defeat the Tar Heels.

UVA is 3-1 against North Carolina in the Mendenhall era. The Cavaliers have notched three straight wins in the series, including a 38-31 decision in Chapel Hill last season.


Three Opponents To Watch

No. 25 Javonte Williams, junior, running back: Williams, who has the top running back grade (93.4) in the nation according to Pro Football Focus, is looking for his fourth straight game of 100+ rushing yards after amassing 169 yards against Virginia Tech, 119 yards against Florida State, and 160 yards against NC State. Effective as a runner and as a receiver, the 220-pound Williams is one of only two running backs in the nation to have 500 or more yards rushing and 200 yards or more receiving this season. Clemson’s Travis Etienne, who hurt the Cavaliers in the receiving game when UVA and Clemson met on October 3, is the other.

Senior running back Michael Carter (#8) could have been listed here just as easily. Like Williams, Carter has rushed for over 500 yards this season. Both are averaging over 100 yards rushing per game. Carter is a solid receiver as well, having totaled 12 receptions through five games.

No. 2 Dyami Brown, junior, wide receiver

As much as they may try and forget, Virginia fans should remember Brown very well from last season’s matchup. He totaled six receptions for 202 yards and was on the receiving end of three of Sam Howell’s four explosive touchdown passes (20+ yards) against UVA in 2019. The 2019 All ACC Third Team pick has kept up his stellar play in 2020, totaling 24 receptions for 401 yards and three scores.

Virginia surrendered 10 catches, 170 yards, and a 43-yard touchdown to Miami receiver Mike Harley last week. While I think senior cornerbacks De’Vante Cross and Nick Grant will play well, I think Brown and the rest of UNC’s receiving options will present UVA’s nickel corner and safeties some matchup issues.

No. 21 Chazz Surratt, junior, inside linebacker: The former Tar Heel quarterback has become one of the ACC’s best linebackers the past two seasons, and his ability was on display last week against NC State. Surratt racked up eight tackles, a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble in the win over the Wolfpack, earning ACC Linebacker of the Week for the second time in 2020 as a result.

Surratt, who leads UNC in tackles and has four sacks on the season, is a top defensive player. What stood out in reviewing Pro Football Focus grades, though, was his low marks in terms of rush defense (24.6) and tackling (57.7). This could be something to watch if UVA tries to run in between the tackles against the Tar Heels.

Three Quotes

Virginia inside linebacker Nick Jackson on the importance of sure tackling against a high-octane UNC offense (according to UNC coach Mack Brown, Tar Heel players broke 27 tackles last week against NC State): “North Carolina’s a great team, so definitely have to focus on tackling the backs, tackling the receivers and all the other players. They have really good players and we have to treat them like they’re really good players. Attack the week. Work on tackling and work on everything we need to work on. I think our coaches are going to prepare us really well for it. I’m excited to play it.”

UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall on what having starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong back in the lineup means to the team: “Oh yeah. We’re a different team with Brennan. The throws he can make, how tough he is when he scrambles, just his leadership style. I watched from the sideline against Miami and this team, this year, went to Miami, as well as going to Clemson and played with more resolve and more consistent spirit than playing Clemson and Miami a year ago. Even though we didn’t have the outcomes that we wanted. Man, I liked this year’s team’s effort and mindset better and I think Brennan has a lot to do with that. So he makes a difference for us, even though it hasn’t shown on the outcome yet.”

UNC head coach Mack Brown on Bronco Mendenhall and playing at night. “Bronco is a dear friend of mine. We were on the AFCA board together for many years. I coached against him at Brigham Young twice when we were at Texas, and then last year here. He’s probably the most upbeat person I’ve ever been around. He stays up and picks those kids up. They got a tough straw on the schedules. They’ve played at Miami, they’ve played at Clemson, and they’ve played at Wake Forest, who is obviously improving with their win last weekend over Virginia Tech. Eight o’clock game. We didn’t handle it well at Florida State. We’re getting up at five in the morning. We meet at 6:30. We practice from eight to 10 every morning, so the 12 o’clock games work really, really well for us. Eight o’clock’s late, so we’re going to have to handle that situation better this weekend. They got eight starters back on defense from the team that we played last year. They lost their quarterback. But this will be a fight. It’ll be an absolute fight. It should be a great game.”

Three Key Questions

1. Does Virginia have enough offense to keep up with the Tar Heels?

UVA won a shootout-type game with UNC last season thanks to a Herculean effort from Bryce Perkins, who threw for 378 yards and three scores and rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns. This year’s offense very much remains a work in progress. While Virginia scored 38 points in its season-opening win over Duke, it has not posted more than 23 points in any game since. North Carolina has scored no fewer than 26 points in any game this season and is averaging 37.8 points per game.

Virginia football quarterback Brennan Armstrong and the Cavalier passing game will have to be more efficient, but a productive rushing attack is a must against UNC. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Even when starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong is in the lineup, this year’s Cavalier offense has struggled to find consistency, especially in the passing game. The Hoos may be without its best downfield threat, 6’7” true freshman Lavel Davis Jr., for a second consecutive week, another blow to the passing game.

Virginia’s best hope of putting up points on Saturday likely starts with establishing the ground game, which has been a bright spot in recent weeks. UNC is surrendering 4.1 yards per carry and has the worst Pro Football Focus run defense grade (and close to the worst in tackling). Virginia has found a rhythm in the run game, rushing for 218 yards against Wake and 185 yards against Miami. The passing attack will have to produce at some point against UNC, but if UVA has a consistent run game from start to finish, the Hoos could keep the UNC offense off the field and put up enough points to come away with the win.

2. Can Virginia’s rush defense hold up against UNC’s vaunted passing attack?

With the exception of a 75-yard touchdown run against Wake Forest, the Hoos have been stout against the run the past two weeks. According to Pro Football Focus, UVA had its best run defense day of the season against Miami, earning an 89.8 grade. Virginia also had a good tackling day against the Hurricanes, earning an 82.8 grade. The latter will be particularly important against the Tar Heel running backs, who defensive coordinator Nick Howell said Wednesday has run through every defense they have played against this season.

Slowing down Williams and Carter is the priority with the idea of putting the pressure on quarterback Sam Howell. The Tar Heels have dynamic receivers led by Brown, but slowing down the Carolina offense has to start with slowing down the run game.

3. How will UNC respond to playing on the road and at night?

North Carolina is 4-1 on the season. Only two of those games have been on the road, and in both cases the Tar Heels did not reach the 30-point mark offensively, scoring 26 points in a 4-point win over Boston College and 28 points in a 3-point loss at Florida State. Mack Brown wondered during his Monday press conference if his team would be able to play better on the road than they have so far. As Brown mentioned in the earlier quote, he also wonders if his team will have the necessary focus playing at night. Syracuse (31-6 win), Virginia Tech (56-45 win), and NC State (48-21 win) were all noon games at home. Boston College was a 3:30 p.m. start while kickoff against Florida State was 7:30 p.m. The Seminoles took a 31-7 lead into halftime.

Virginia is used to the night games and will be playing its third 8 p.m. contest of 2020. The Hoos lost to Clemson and Miami previously but played solidly in both contests.

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

Virginia’s 1-4 start has rattled some of the football team’s fans. While most expected some difficulty in replacing record-setting quarterback Bryce Perkins, NFL playmaker Joe Reed, and sure-handed Hasise Dubois on offense, the sluggish start feels more extreme than some anticipated. The offensive line is experienced and so is the defense so how did the Hoos abruptly fall into such a tailspin? A combination of losing plays – explosive touchdowns allowed, turnovers, untimely penalties, and so on – plus some injuries in the secondary have been the root of the struggles.

Still, are the Wahoos that far off from a better record? Virginia has split its home games and lost three times on the road in a season where home teams have had a massive advantage (check out this Tweet from David Teel – home teams are wining 17% more often this season than the previous four!) If UVA hadn’t laid an egg against NC State, would the outlook feel different? Plus, even the Perkins-led team of a year ago lost at Miami and to Clemson at a neutral site.

The team and coaches continue to say they’re close and need just a little bit better execution at critical times to flip some results. The problem, of course, is that the Hoos are not making any of those plays. This week against UNC, the plays that have to be made fall into these categories loosely: 1) Tackle to prevent big plays from the Heels, 2) Finish off drives instead of leaving points on the board, 3) Avoid turnovers and untimely penalties again, and 4) Clock management. The issue is that there’s not much margin for error for this Virginia team so even just a handful of mistakes in any of those areas has been enough to lead to losses and could again against Carolina. This feels like a game where the Tar Heels will score on at least one big play and that UVA won’t have enough offensive firepower to win.

Still, I want to pick an upset for the Hoos because of home field advantage, Mack Brown’s bad luck at Scott Stadium, and desperation mode of sorts for UVA. VIRGINIA 31, UNC 27. This season: 3-2.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

After a dismal effort against NC State, Virginia football has rebounded and gotten back to playing competitive, determined football. Execution has cost the Hoos in its past two games, which were losses at Wake Forest and Miami. The Hoos had legitimate chances to win each of those games … had a few plays gone UVA’s way, we could be talking about a 3-2 Cavalier team coming into the latest edition of the “South’s Oldest Rivalry.”

The bottom line, though, is that Virginia has not been able to make plays when they need to the most, and as a result they are 1-4. The good news is that Virginia’s front seven played well last week against Miami, flashing the havoc we saw consistently last season and against Duke in the 2020 season opener. The secondary remains a concern if Brenton Nelson and/or Joey Blount are out against the Tar Heels, although the Tar Heels could be playing without 6’3” receiver Beau Corrales, who is averaging over 18 yards per catch. UNC still has plenty of quality receiving targets, but Corrales’ loss is significant.

Scott Stadium has been a house of horrors of sorts for Mack Brown, who has never defeated the Cavaliers in Charlottesville. I think the Hoos will come close to adding another in the loss column, but ultimately I think UNC has too much offense while UVA does not have enough. Hope I’m wrong, but … UNC 35, VIRGINIA 28. This season: 3-2.

Sabre Message Board Fan Cutter

Mack Brown has never won in Charlottesville and keeping that streak intact will not be an easy task for the Hoos Saturday evening. Brown has restocked the cupboard quickly in the land of fake classes. The Tar Heels offense features standouts Sam Howell, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams, all among the conference leaders at their respective positions. If the Hoos allow Howell too much time in the pocket, he’ll pick them apart. Carter and Williams are highly capable running backs and both average over 100 yards rushing per game.

For the Hoos to pull out the win Saturday they’ll need perhaps their best effort of the season on all three sides (offense, defense, and special teams) and I expect that’s just what we’ll see. The Hoos’ front seven on D are starting to gel so look for them to generate just enough pressure on Howell to keep him from having a huge day in the air. Ideally, they disrupt him enough for the defensive backfield to get an interception or two.

Offensively, the Hoos will have a productive, balanced attack. Look for a six-headed rushing unit as for the first time we’ll get to see Ronnie Walker in a Cav uniform. Walker will get some yards on the ground but I look for Armstrong (and perhaps the other QBs) to hit him in the air for several positive gains. While the attack will be balanced and focused more so on running to keep the explosive Tar Heel offense off the field, this is the game where Poljan and Henry really step up to help Armstrong. Carolina averages nearly 38 points a game and the Cavs average just over 26. Look for a close game with a race to 30 points.

Some things never change
As sure as the sky is blue
Carolina Sux!

Prediction: 30-30 at the end of regulation. UNC makes a field goal after their first OT possession and the Hoos get a TD for the 36-33 win. HOOS 36, TAR HEELS 30 (OT). This season (last week CDCHoo): 3-2

Remember when …

UVA reeled off 17 straight points in the fourth quarter to defeat North Carolina, 20-17, in 1996. This was the last time Mack Brown coached in Scott Stadium. The full ACC Digital Network replay is below, but the footage begins with Antwan Harris’ 95-yard interception touchdown return that sparked the Hoos’ comeback.

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