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October 2, 2013As North Carolina and Virginia Tech prepare to face off in a huge Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division matchup Saturday afternoon in Blacksburg, all eyes will be on senior quarterbacks Bryn Renner and Logan Thomas, who are both going to be playing through some discomfort as they each work through foot-related ailments.
Both Renner and Thomas have been seen this week wearing boots on opposite feet (Renner's left, Thomas's right), and while they're each going to get the start on Saturday, the injuries could affect one or both players' performance.
Renner suffered a sprain of his left ankle after getting sacked in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 55-31 loss to East Carolina, while Thomas sprained his right foot against Georgia Tech to go along with an abdominal injury he suffered against Marshall.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora said in Wednesday's weekly ACC teleconference that it doesn't change the way he or his team approach Saturday's important game in Blacksburg because he doesn't anticipate anything to be that much different.
Hobbled or not Renner and Thomas, these two Virginia natives and multi-year veterans, will take the field one last time at the college level in what amounts to a rubber match between the two, as Thomas got the better of Renner and UNC in Lane Stadium back in 2011, while Renner got the upper hand last year in Chapel Hill.
"It (the two quarterbacks being banged up) really doesn't change what we do in preparation really offensively or defensively. You prepare as a football team for guys to be beat up, and guys play when they're beat up. That's just part of it. It doesn't really change what we do," Fedora said.
Thomas's stats are pretty intriguing, for he leads the Atlantic Coast Conference through five games in offensive attempts (210 total, or 42 per game), yet he's ranked behind six other ACC quarterbacks right now in total offensive yardage, including four who have played in one less game.
After being rendered impotent against national title favorite Alabama (completing just five of 26 passes for 59 passing yards against the Crimson Tide), Thomas has been considerably better since, though far from perfect.
In a blowout win over Western Carolina and narrow triumphs over Marshall and East Carolina, Thomas threw more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four) while failing to complete better than 58 percent of his passes in any of those contests.
But the veteran showed up in a big way last Thursday night in Tech's huge win over Georgia Tech, completing 19 of 25 passes for a season-high 221 passing yards as the Hokies took a 17-10 win to take control of the ACC Coastal Division, at least for now.
With his ability to run as well as throw, Thomas is a dual-threat that provides a number of difficulties defending. And while his numbers haven't always been spectacular, his decision-making has improved dramatically and as shown against Georgia Tech, he's prone to stepping up in important games.
"Logan Thomas, he's a heck of a football player. He just continues to lead that football team and do a great job, so I anticipate him playing. I really do. We're going full-speed ahead as to where we're planning to go (defending him)," said Fedora of the VT quarterback.
"He's working," added Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer of Thomas. "He told me (Tuesday) he felt better this week than he did last week. He's a tough guy. He ran the ball several times in our Thursday game. I think a couple extra days has helped somewhat. I think he's going to be good to go on Saturday."
"I think he (Thomas) is a lot better than he was last year," added UNC defensive coach Vic Koenning. "He does a better job on early downs. He's got a strong arm. Sometimes he throws it through guys. So there's not a pass he can't make."
In Koenning's eyes, the Hokies offensively are more advanced this season and are doing more in the passing game, which naturally presents a tremendous challenge to a UNC secondary that got absolutely torched against ECU.
"Their offense is better this year," Koenning said of Virginia Tech. "They're doing a lot of similar things but it's better because of what they do on first and second down. They're throwing the ball more on those downs and spreading the field more with their empty sets and all they've got. Last year they had probably three or four pass concepts and now they've got the whole spectrum. And so they're able to put more pressure on you."
"Last year we were able to zero in on those concepts and double guys and play high and low on guys, and this year we're going to have play honest. And we've struggled when we've honestly (had to play) one-on-one (coverage). So it's going to be a real challenge to see what our guys can do," Koenning continued.
Renner came out to Tuesday's practice without a boot on, but he ceded the first-team practice repetitions mostly to sophomore Marquise Williams.
But there's no way Renner won't play as long as he's alive and walking on Saturday---as he eluded to when he spoke to reporters on Monday.
Certainly he, his teammates, his coaches, and UNC supporters all over the country are hoping he'll play much-improved from recent games against the Hokies, who will naturally bring a tough defensive challenge.
"He (Renner) wasn't in a boot in practice yesterday (at Tuesday's practice)," said Fedora. "He seems to be moving around pretty good. So I think as of right now, everything seems to be fine."
"I'm going to let the trainers handle it (my ankle), just take it one practice at a time and I plan on playing Saturday," Renner said.
Renner wasn't exactly bad on Saturday against the Pirates---he completed 28 of 46 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns---but it wasn't nearly enough production to make up for an atrocious defensive performance by the Tar Heels.
So far this fall Renner just hasn't been as sharp as he was last season, as he's completing slightly less than 60 percent of his throws (59.9 percent to be exact heading to Blacksburg) and his quarterback rating has dropped nearly 20 points from last season's rating of 150.8.
He's also now thrown interceptions in three straight games.
"(VT defensive coordinator) Coach (Bud) Foster does a great job, I think it's going to be one of the toughest defenses we've played all year - South Carolina, even, minus (Jadeveon) Clowney, I think it's going to be maybe that caliber defense - and we're going to need everybody to make plays on Saturday," said Renner.
"They (the Hokies) do a great job preparing. We can build off of what we did last year against them, I know that they're going to have their homecoming so they're going to be ready to play, it's going to be a tough challenge on the road for us."
"Every week in the ACC is tough and we have a tough stretch coming up with Virginia Tech and Miami back to back and that's always tough, both those teams are well coached and have great athletes. I think we're going to have our hands full both weeks, but Virginia Tech's our focus right now," Renner continued.
Coach Fedora attributes some of Renner's early troubles this season to the offense as a whole being out of sync, which can of course be attributed to a combination of things.
Certainly working in three new starting offensive lineman has played a role in some of the issues for UNC, along with inconsistency at the running back position and limited proven reliable options in the passing game.
"I don't think we've had any real consistency at all, and some of that has been game situations where either we got out of our game plan or adjusted our game plan," Fedora said. " Some of it is continuity up front. Some of it is backs. It's a full combination of everything, and we're going to continue to work at it to try and make everything come together."
Renner's ankle is certainly a disconcerting situation for UNC as they look to turn its season around Saturday in what is now undoubtedly the most important game of the year if the Tar Heels to make any noise in the Coastal Division and right a ship that has entered very choppy seas over the past couple weeks.
They must endure multiple stiff challenges in coming weeks if they're to make anything of this 2013 season but it all starts for Renner and the Tar Heels against the Hokies, who are looking to solidify their place atop the Coastal while exacting some revenge after UNC drubbed them a year ago.
All eyes indeed will be on these two quarterbacks, and which one can better overcome the pain and make fewer mistakes will likely be the one feeling the best late in the day Saturday afternoon when this one is over.