Three-List Preview: Virginia Football Headed To Chapel Hill For First ACC Game Of 2021

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The 126th edition of “The South’s Oldest Rivalry” occurs just three weeks into the 2021 season, but there is plenty on the line Saturday evening when the Virginia Cavaliers square off against the No. 21 North Carolina Tar Heels.

Can Brennan Armstrong and the Virginia football program take the quality play they’ve displayed at home the first two weeks on the road in Chapel Hill? ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

Virginia, which is 2-0 following convincing home victories over William & Mary and Illinois, is opening conference play on the road, where wins have been difficult to achieve in the Bronco Mendenhall era. The Hoos are 6-19 in true road games the previous five seasons, 6-20 if you include the 2017 Military Bowl loss to Navy. The good news is two of those road wins have come in Chapel Hill; however, consistent road success is an emphasis for a program looking to compete for conference championships on a yearly basis.

“When you’re building a program, and that’s not to say that I haven’t tried to do it all at the same time, but there has been different emphasis, and so as I’m learning, try to remain updated with the statistics, our first game — and I keep going back to that, there’s a few games along the way, but when I saw our first game against Richmond when I arrived here, it was priority number one to become exceptional at home first, and that’s taken a lot, a lot of work to become 19-2 and now 15-1 over the last little bit. That’s one of the best records in college football at home,” Mendenhall said during his September 13 press conference. “So we’re now getting ready to — and maintaining holding on to that, which is preserving the core, and then we have to stimulate progress, which to win the league and to win the division and to have the program I want, we all want consistently, that has to travel.

“I inherited a program that wasn’t strong on the road, and sequentially now have become strong at home and have become a contender for the Coastal and are the defending Coastal champs, right, and that was when we won at least half our games on the road,” Mendenhall said.

Redshirt junior Brennan Armstrong has begun his second season as the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback with two consecutive ACC Quarterback of the Week honors. UVA’s passing game has thrived as the Hoos have posted 43 and 42-point outings, respectively, while the Cavalier defense has surrendered just 14 points, shutting out the Tribe before holding Illinois to 14 points.

Armstrong, who put up career-best numbers in terms of passing yards (405) and passing touchdowns (5) versus Illinois, and what has been a high-octane UVA offense face a North Carolina defense that has surrendered an average of 283.5 total yards per game (No. 31 in the nation among FBS schools). The Tar Heels defense held Virginia Tech to 296 total yards in a season-opening 17-10 loss in Blacksburg and Georgia State to 17 points in a blowout victory last Saturday.

Virginia’s defense is surrendering an average of 260 total yards of offense per game, which is tied for No. 18 in the nation. The Hoos are fourth in scoring defense and have performed very well on third down, allowing a 29% conversion rate (Tied for No. 29 in the nation). However, Preseason All-ACC QB Sam Howell and the Tar Heel offense present a much bigger challenge than either of UVA’s first two 2021 opponents. UNC’s offense is a work in progress – the Heels are trying to replace the loss of running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome from last season – but with Howell and talented playmakers around him, there is significant potential there.

The last team to win the Coastal Division resides in Charlottesville, and Virginia is hoping for a repeat of the feat it accomplished in 2019. That season, a road win at North Carolina sparked the Hoos’ run to the Coastal Division title and a spot in the ACC Championship game. UVA would love to start ACC play with a win over the 2021 Preseason Coastal Division favorite Tar Heels. Meanwhile, North Carolina is looking to pull even in conference play after the loss at Tech and end a 4-game losing streak at the hands of the Hoos. Falling 0-2 in the ACC, with both losses to Coastal Division foes, would leave the Tar Heels with a steep mountain to climb.

Click here for our Game News page for all necessary information on the UVA/UNC matchup. Kickoff in Kenan Stadium is 7:30 p.m.

Three Tar Heels To Watch: Offense

Sam Howell, QB, #7

After a rough season-opener at Virginia Tech in which he completed only 53% of his passes and threw three interceptions, Sam Howell returned to form against Georgia State, completing 21-of-29 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns in the 59-17 victory over Georgia State. In a new wrinkle that could be worth remembering on Saturday, Howell rushed for over 100 yards and two scores as well against GSU. This was the first time in his career that he rushed for over 100 yards.

Howell decimated the UVA pass defense last season, completing 23-of-28 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns.

Josh Downs, WR, #11

In what is great news for Virginia defensive backs, Dyami Brown is now in the NFL. Brown racked up 17 catches for 442 yards and six touchdowns in 2019 and 2020. The Hoos will have to contend with Josh Downs, though.

Downs has emerged as Howell’s favorite receiver through UNC’s first two games. The 5’10”, 180-pound sophomore has been targeted 22 times according to Pro Football Focus. Fellow wide out Emery Simmons is the only other player with double-digit targets, coming in with 15. Downs has responded with 16 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns, including a 37-yard touchdown catch versus Virginia Tech. Downs took a short pass from Howell and weaved his way through the Tech defense for the score.

In addition to his role on offense, Downs also serves as UNC’s punt returner. He has only one return to his credit in 2021, but with his speed and quickness he is certainly a threat.

Ty Chandler, RB, #19

UNC has a number of other players to watch out for. Receivers Simmons (six catches, 119 yards, 1 TD) and Antoine Greene (five catches, 137 yards, 1 TD) are capable of breaking big plays. The Tar Heels have three tight ends who have combined for five catches and 117 yards. Tennessee grad-transfer running back Ty Chandler is my pick as a third offensive player to watch, though.

UNC’s rushing attack is not the same without the dynamic duo of Carter and Williams. Chandler was brought in to be the heir apparent. The 6’0”, 225-pound running back has produced decent numbers, rushing 25 times (a team high) for 124 yards and a touchdown, but so far he has not proven to be the threat Carter and Williams were. That being said, Virginia cannot let the UNC run game get going. Chandler is capable, and if he is able to produce consistently, the Tar Heel offense could be difficult to stop.

Like Downs, Chandler also serves as a returner on special teams. He has two kick returns for 51 yards this season.

Three Tar Heels To Watch: Defense

Ja’Qurious Conley, Strong Safety, #0

UNC head coach Mack Brown describes Conley as “really, really tough. He loves football and he competes every play.”

Conley played well in the loss to Tech, totaling seven tackles (six solo) with one tackle for a loss and an interception. As a true freshman last season, Conley appeared in 10 games, one of which was a start in the Orange Bowl versus Texas A&M. He finished 2020 with 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one pass breakup. Through two games in 2021, he leads UNC in tackles with 12 (10 solo, two assisted).

Eugene Asante, Inside Linebacker, #7

The 6’0.5”, 220-pound Asante is second on the Tar Heel defense in tackles with 11, and he leads UNC in quarterback hurries with two. Asante has a pass breakup and a half-a-tackle-for-loss to his credit too. The junior is a good all-around linebacker.

Myles Murphy, Defensive Tackle, #8

According to Mack Brown, Murphy, a 6’3.5”, 305-pound sophomore, played his best game as a Tar Heel last week against Georgia State. He totaled two tackles for loss, one of which was a sack. Murphy only had two assisted tackles versus Virginia Tech, so we’ll see if his production against Georgia State continues against a very good Virginia offensive line.

Three Things For Virginia Football To Focus On

Big Play Touchdowns

North Carolina has scored eight offensive touchdowns this season. Six of those scores have come on big plays of 22 yards or more.

UNC has feasted off big-play touchdowns against Virginia the past two seasons. In 2019, Howell tossed touchdown passes of 34, 42, 47 and 50 yards, but UVA won in a shootout 38-31. Last season, Howell threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns in the 44-41 defeat. Two of those touchdown passes were 54 and 76 yards.

In Week 1 of this season, Virginia Tech allowed UNC five plays of 20 yards or more, but only one went for a touchdown. UNC reached the redzone only once in 11 drives against Tech. Bottom line is, the best chance of success against Howell and company is making them drive the length of the field. Will the Cavalier pass defense be up to the task?

Creating Havoc

The defense has made just enough plays the past two seasons for UVA to edge out the Tar Heels. Linebacker Charles Snowden played a major role in that last year, sacking Sam Howell four times, including one that resulted in a forced fumble that was recovered by Mandy Alonso. Virginia cashed in on the turnover with a touchdown to go up 41-20, and ultimately the Hoos held on for the victory.

The lack of pass protection was certainly a factor in Howell’s struggles (three INTs) versus Virginia Tech, as the Hokies totaled six sacks and four quarterback hurries. Georgia State managed two sacks last week, so there seems to be an opening to get to Howell. Can UVA take advantage? The Hoos totaled three sacks last week versus Illinois, but so far the UVA pass rush has not seemed overwhelming. If the UVA defensive line and linebackers can get consistent pressure, though, the pass coverage gets more defenders and Howell could get flustered.

Keytaon Thompson is one of a handful of offensive weapons UNC has to worry about on Saturday. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

Prevent Havoc

UNC has had a difficult time establishing pass rush, totaling just two sacks and four quarterback hurries in its first two games. The strength of the UVA offensive line is pass protection, as the Hoos have allowed only three sacks in two games. If the two trends hold, Virginia should be able to give Brennan Armstrong and the passing attack plenty of time to operate. It’ll be up to Armstrong to make good decisions and play well in a hostile atmosphere.

PICKS

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

The ACC opener has arrived as Virginia’s trip to North Carolina is on deck for this weekend. The Saturday night showdown features two wheeling and dealing quarterbacks against two defenses trying to maintain early season signs of improvement after rough 2020 seasons.

Coming into this game, Cavalier QB Brennan Armstrong has thrown for 744 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 1 interception on a 71.5% completion rate in two outings, while Tar Heel QB Sam Howell has thrown for 560 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Either player can light it up on a given night and they both did last season in a 44-41 shootout win for the Wahoos. Armstrong had 208 passing yards with 3 touchdowns in that one, while Howell put up 443 and 4. On the other side of the ball, the Carolina defense allowed 29.4 points per game last season and the UVA defense allowed 29.6. Through two games each this season, UNC has allowed just 17.0, while Virginia has allowed 7.0. Ultimately, whoever wins that tug of war between the quarterbacks and the defenses will probably win the game.

For the Hoos, the other nagging storyline this week has been the road record in the Bronco Mendenhall era. The Cavaliers are 5-15 in ACC road games in his tenure. There has been talk about increased internal emphasis on improving road results, including moving practices away from the practice fields to other locations without previously telling the team. It’s time to see if any of that pays off.

The first two road wins under this staff were surprises by two scores or more, a 34-20 win in 2016 at Duke that ended a 17-game road losing streak for the program and a 42-23 win in 2017 at Boise State that was the program’s first non-con road win in six years. This week has a similar vibe to that State outing in that many would be surprised by a convincing road win, particularly against what figures to be an intense UNC team that already has a division loss. I think something’s brewing this week, but I don’t know if it will reach that level. HOOS 35, HEELS 27. Season to date: 2-0

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

UNC is the ranked team coming in, but there are reasons to be confident if you’re Virginia. The offense is red hot and has been in a great rhythm the past seven quarters. Meanwhile, UNC seems to be working towards getting to where they want to be offensively. The talent is there for the Tar Heels, but there are offensive line questions and players are adapting to new and bigger roles.

The biggest question for UVA is if they can take the quality play on the road. Bryce Perkins and the offense certainly did in 2019. Is Brennan Armstrong and company ready to do the same? I think so. Virginia’s experienced offensive line and a plethora of offensive weapons will be a difficult challenge for UNC. In an important early season game, I think UVA edges out the homestanding Heels in another high scoring affair. VIRGINIA 35, NORTH CAROLINA 27. Season to date: 2-0

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