Virginia Football Game Preview: North Carolina

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The Virginia football team returns to Scott Stadium this week.
Albert Reid has scored a rushing touchdown in five straight games. ~ Kris Wright

Virginia football games this season have increasingly become high-scoring affairs. In five of the six games, one team produced at least 34 points, while three games saw both teams reach 26 points or more. Over the last three, 214 points dizzied the scoreboard, an average of 71.3 points per game.

Three yards and a cloud of dust? Nope.

UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall, who works as the defensive play caller for the Hoos as well, sees the high-scoring trends in college football.

“I think college football is heading that way. That doesn’t mean I have to get used to it or like it,” Mendenhall said. “And haven’t really gotten used to it, and don’t like it from a defensive perspective. So this is atypical in terms of what I’m used to. But, again, invigorating for the challenge that it brings.”

Cavalier fans have not seen these types of offensive outputs for their team in quite some time. Virginia had not scored 30 or more points in three straight games since 2004 before this recent three-game stretch created 49, 34, and 31 points respectively. UVA currently averages 28.3 points per game, which ties for 70th nationally among the 128 FBS teams.

Still, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing with improved scoring. The Hoos reeled off scoring plays of 25, 28, 44, 53, 74, and 82 yards this season, but consistency between those outburst has been elusive. Take the last two homes for example.

Against Central Michigan, UVA scored on four of its first five possessions but then went six straight without points. Those six drives featured four with 15 yards or less of offense. Against Pittsburgh, the Hoos again started hot by scoring on four of their first six possessions. Six more possessions followed without points and five of those produced 12 yards or less.

It’s something that will have to improve if Virginia wants to win more games. The long vanishing acts put a lot of pressure on defense and special teams both mentally and physically, while also impacting field position in a big way.

“It wasn’t really methodical drives that were putting us in the end zone, they were giant plays that were happening,” Mendenhall said about the Pitt game. “So we’re explosive right now. But the more explosive, and the more you rely on long plays, really the less consistent you can appear. So there is a balance in there between the number of times we throw intermediate and long, and the number of times the ball is delivered horizontally or running it mixed in with that. So that mix is usually what adds to consistency. … The more it becomes [just] throw deep, the less consistent it will be. Maybe the more entertaining to watch, but not so much consistent.”

The Cavaliers will try to find that balance against a tough North Carolina team this week. The Tar Heels come in on an eight-game road winning streak while averaging 32.1 points per game themselves. A closer look at the rivalry showdown follows.

Virginia Football Essentials

Hoo Facts

  • Virginia faces North Carolina on Saturday for the 121st time in the South’s Oldest Rivalry, a series that began in 1892. The 121 meetings ties Miami (Ohio)-Cincinnati for the second most nationally.
  • The two schools have played every season since 1919.
  • President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, attended the 1928 Virginia vs. North Carolina Thanksgiving Day matchup at UVA’s Lambeth Field.
  • Since 1982, the Cavaliers are 15-2-1 in the series when committing fewer turnovers than the Tar Heels. UNC is 10-2 when committing fewer turnovers. Carolina forced five turnovers in last season’s win.
  • Quin Blanding reached the 300-tackle plateau last week. He has averaged 10.0 tackles per game in 30 games as a Hoo. Blanding ranks No. 2 all-time among UVA defensive backs in tackles, trailing only Anthony Poindexter’s 342 stops.
  • UVA ranks No. 2 nationally in red zone touchdown percentage at 80.9%.
  • The inaugural ACC Football Tailgate Tour will begin at 12 p.m. in front of University Hall and continue until the 3 p.m. kickoff. A 53-foot tractor trailer will be the centerpiece of the tour. Former Cavaliers standout quarterback Aaron Brooks will be on hand for this Saturday’s festivities.

Tar Heel Facts

  • UNC leads the all-time series 62-54-4. The Tar Heels have won six straight contests between the long-time foes.
  • North Carolina coach Larry Fedora is 6-0 against Virginia, including four wins at UNC and two at Southern Miss.
  • Carolina has won eight straight true road games – only Ohio State (20), Alabama (10), and Iowa (9) have longer active streaks. This marks the longest road winning streak for the program since winning 10 straight from 1947-49.
  • UNC will try to become the second team to join the 700-win club with a victory against Virginia. Pittsburgh notched its 700th program win in its 2015 meeting with UVA. The Tar Heels are 699-521-54 in their history.

3 Hoos To Watch

Albert Reid. The senior running back has scored a rushing touchdown in five straight games. He enters this week’s game with 68 carries for 346 yards and 6 touchdowns. He could have a pivotal role in this week’s contest since UNC enters the game ranked 107th nationally against the run. The Tar Heels allowed 216.0 yards per game in their first seven outings. The last time Reid faced vulnerable run defense at Oregon (the Ducks rank 118th nationally at 238.0 yards per game allowed), he put up 126 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

Juan Thornhill. The Tar Heels like to throw the ball around the yard, averaging 299.7 passing yards per game (24th nationally). That means Virginia’s secondary will be tested Saturday. Thornhill has emerged as a mostly reliable corner so far in his sophomore season. He has posted 22 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions this season. Thornhill will need to cover well and tackle well against a Carolina offense that throws quick passes and outside screens a lot.

Olamide Zaccheaus. The sophomore receiver leads UVA with 423 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdowns. He has 29 total catches. Zaccheaus is tied for No. 2 in the nation for most receptions of 70+ yards. With Virginia relying on the passing game and quarterback Kurt Benkert, Zaccheaus provides a key role on the field. He can stretch things vertically with his speed, set up for quick passes or screens, and possibly be a threat to run it as well.

3 Tar Heels To Watch

Mitch Trubisky. Virginia fans remember the junior quarterback for his one-play touchdown at Scott Stadium in the Tar Heels’ 2014 win. With starting QB Marquise Williams out for one play after losing his helmet, Trubisky came in and threw the winning touchdown pass. He is doing that a lot more often now. He ranks fifth in the nation in total completions (179), sixth in completion percentage (70.5), ninth in total yards (2,068), 12th in pass efficiency rating (156.78), 19th in passing yards per game (295.4) and 18th in TD passes (15). He set a school record with 243 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. He completed his final 12 passes against Pitt and his first 18 against JMU for a streak of 30 straight completions.

Ryan Switzer. Yes, the senior receiver is still at North Carolina. And he’s a huge thorn in defense’s sides. Switzer is UNC’s all-time leading receiver with 206 career catches. He has at least on reception in 44 of 46 career games. Earlier this season, he posted 30 receptions in a two-game stretch with 16 against Pitt and 14 more against FSU. The Heels won both games. Switzer is a threat in the return game too. He has seven career punt return touchdowns, which is an ACC career record, and 1,029 punt return yards, a UNC career record. Keep an eye on kick returner T.J. Logan too – he’s tied for the program’s all-time lead with three career kickoff return touchdowns.

Malik Carney. The sophomore defensive end leads UNC with 3.5 sacks on the season. The Tar Heels average 2.14 sacks per game (15 total sacks ties for 51st nationally) with nine different players in on the action. Considering UVA’s second half issues protecting the pocket against Pitt (4 sacks allowed in the second half), watch Carney and company to see if they can break down the UVA offensive line.

3 Things To Watch

Fast then slow. As mentioned in the opening, Virginia scored early against Central Michigan and Pittsburgh but fizzled after the fast start. That could match some of UNC’s outings too. Pitt scored points on five of its first seven drives against the Tar Heels, but UNC forced punts on three of the final four drives. Carolina also held JMU scoreless on seven of its last eight drives after the Dukes scored 21 points in the first quarter.

Tricky. Larry Fedora has pulled out trick plays against Virginia before – a fake punt out of his own end zone while at Southern Miss in 2011, a quarterback-throwback touchdown in 2013, and an onsides kick recovery in 2014. The Hoos nearly got burned on a flea flicker last week against Pittsburgh too. Don’t be surprised if UNC throws something tricky – receiver pass, halfback option, or something like that – into the mix.

Third down defense. Both teams enter this game with poor third down defense. UNC ranks 93rd nationally by allowing 42.34% conversions, while UVA ties for 114th by allowing 47.37% conversions. Can’t get stops if you can’t get off the field on third down more often. The Tar Heels, however, hold a big edge on the other side of the ball. They convert third downs 48.42% of the time (18th nationally) compared to the Cavaliers’ 40.23% (67th).

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