10 Keys: Virginia Tech at UNC

North Carolina (3-2, 0-1 ACC) faces a big challenge Saturday afternoon, as Virginia Tech (3-2, 1-0 ACC), still smarting last-minute loss to Cincinnati, invades Kenan Stadium. The game has huge implications in the ACC's Coastal Division, for even though the Tar Heels can't technically win the division this fall, they can make it much harder for the Hokies to do so if they can knock them off.
Kickoff is scheduled for approximately 12:30 pm from Chapel Hill.
This phase of the game is always critical, but the difference in its importance this week from last week's record-breaking victory against Idaho is significant. UNC could have turned the ball over five times against the Vandals while failing to force a single turnover and the Tar Heels would still have won the game. Carolina's talent was overwhelmingly superior to Idaho. That will not be the case on Saturday. Starters versus starters, this game is even in talent.
Bryn Renner may not run as well as Logan Thomas, but Renner is a future National Football League quarterback. He has a big-time arm, both in strength and accuracy. Logan has a ton of talent too, but he's thrown up six interceptions so far this fall, so certainly he's not averse to putting one up that the defense can grab.
Virginia Tech always has excellent running backs, but does anyone really believe the Hokies will have a back who is superior to Giovani Bernard? And as far as special teams, which Virginia Tech gets so much praise for each week, and rightfully so, the Hokies are probably no better at it now than the Tar Heels are. First-year coach Larry Fedora has instilled an emphasis on special teams that rivals Coach Frank Beamer's. Say you don't think so. Well, the Tar Heels have blocked three punts in five games and have returned a punt for a touchdown. They have been outstanding on kickoff and punt coverage, too. So all this means this game will likely come down to who forces more turnovers and who commits more turnovers.
Neither UNC nor Virginia Tech have done a particularly great job this season in time of possession, as they're ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, in the ACC in that particular category. Carolina is averaging possession just over 26 and a half minutes per game, while its opponents have had the ball for over 33 minutes, or just under seven minutes more per game on average. Some of that can be credited to quick scoring drives against overmatched opponents like Elon and Idaho, but the Tar Heels could have definitely used another possession or two in both of its losses at Wake Forest and Louisville.
Against Virginia Tech, a ball control team that typically doesn't beat itself very often, UNC needs to take advantage of every possession and extend drives, if nothing else to improve Carolina's field position situation. Everybody that knows anything knows that UNC can't expect to have a half like they did last week against Idaho where they don't have to punt, so it would be helpful for UNC to have a couple of those drives where they don't necessarily go down and score, but move the ball enough to force Virginia Tech into bad field position.
It may not have as much significance as it would against a team like Georgia Tech, but controlling time of possession could be huge for Carolina against this particular team. Virginia Tech prides itself on wearing down teams with strong defense and a punishing running game that often dissolves the clock in fourth quarters, and that's a formula that UNC can't afford to let happen.
If there were ever a traditional team as far as huddling and running a standard offense and defense, Virginia Tech is it. This is not criticism, either. One of the greatest assets through the years for the Hokies has been their ability to play fundamentally sound football better than their opponents. They perform a lot like a former UNC and Virginia Tech coach, Bill Dooley's teams.
The Hokies block, tackle, run the ball and, more often than not, win the kicking game. On the flip side, the Tar Heels' offensive scheme could not be more radical in comparison. Oh, the Tar Heels are fundamentally sound, but what they do is world's apart from the Hokies. And UNC is doing it better now than at any point in the season. Forget the fact that Carolina outclassed the Idaho athletes in physical skills. Think about how quickly and skillfully UNC ran the hurry-up tempo they have been working toward since spring practice began.
They executed their movement back to the line of scrimmage and the next snap of the ball better than at any point this season. They were smooth and cohesive. If the Tar Heels can continue this against Virginia Tech, that trait could become one of the edges Carolina will need to win the game. The Tar Heels may not have had a clone of Thomas to simulate as far as size and ability on the scout team this week, but Virginia Tech almost certainly had just as much a problem reproducing a replica of Renner and the Tar Heels' fast-paced offense.
UNC's offensive line has arguably been the best unit in the entire Atlantic Coast Conference through the first third of the season. Through five games the Tar Heels have allowed just three sacks---tops in the ACC---compared to nine sacks allowed for Virginia Tech. Simply put, the Heels need to keep it going. Virginia Tech will certainly bring more pressure than Idaho and East Carolina did, but they're not getting to the QB quite like they've done in the past. With just seven sacks in five games (tied with Miami and Georgia Tech for seventh in the ACC), Virginia Tech hasn't exactly been dominant in this realm.
For the Tar Heels to win, Renner needs the time to make his progressions. Virginia Tech has a young back seven still trying to find itself, and UNC needs to exploit them the way Cincinnati did at key points last week, and the way Pittsburgh did when they picked them apart a few weeks back. Clearly Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are capable football teams, but if they can do a solid job of holding off Virginia Tech's pass rushers, UNC should be able to do it too with this offensive line. And if they do, Renner has the potential to have a field day against this talented but still developing Hokie secondary.
The two C's go together as part of the winning equation against Virginia Tech. Thomas is one of those quarterbacks who will hurt you as much with his feet as with his arm. So it is vitally important the outside rush not get too far up the field. Simultaneously, it's critical the defensive backfield cover Virginia Tech's backs and receivers as well and for as long as they can on pass plays.
Strong coverage and two defensive ends forcing Thomas to the middle of the field will give UNC the best possible chance to keep Thomas from gaining positive yardage or throwing successfully, and it would increase Carolina's chances at earning quarterback sacks against a big man who is hard to bring to the ground.
With exception of veteran Marcus Davis, Tech's receivers aren't exactly lighting the world on fire so far---no Hokie receiver is ranked the top 10 in the ACC in receptions per game, and only Davis cracked the top 10 in yardage per game, ranking eighth at 75 yards per game. A gifted athlete who the Tar Heels badly wanted during his high school days, Davis in particular a significant priority for the Tar Heels in its overall effort to cover and contain.
Virginia Tech is a dangerous opponent of course, and that may be extra true coming off a tough loss. They're a proud program not used to winning, and they're going to be coming to Chapel Hill spitting nails. UNC won't have to worry about the Hokies being ready to play, especially in the secondary that has been criticized heavily for some of the recent meltdowns in pass defense. This means that UNC starting wide receivers Erik Highsmith, Sean Tapley, and Quinshad Davis need to come out extra fired up and ready to go from the outset.
They may sound more like a large investment bank or law firm than a group of football players, but the tandem of Highsmith, Tapley, and Davis is essential to Carolina's chances of winning this game. Statistically the Hokies aren't doing poorly on the whole defending the pass this fall, allowing teams to throw for under 200 yards a game to rank third in the ACC, but they've allowed seven touchdowns through the air in five games, which defensive coordinator Bud Foster would likely tell you is below expectations. And they've had some key miscommunications at the worst possible times, such as late in last week's game.
While Bernard and the other UNC running backs naturally have to play well for UNC to win, it's going to be the play of the receivers that really separates these two teams. And if the Tar Heels win the battle of the wideouts, that's going to be hard for the Hokies to overcome barring a slew or turnovers or an offensive breakout of their own.
Even when they're a little down, beating the Hokies requires fundamentally sound play. To start, no shoulder-only attempts at tackling. UNC must wrap up ballcarriers with both arms and wrestle them to the ground. Running to the ball is a great emphasis for the UNC defense, and it will be as important to do this against Virginia Tech as in any game left on the schedule.
It won't always be easy, for as Coach Fedora mentioned this week, Thomas is bigger than many of the defensive players on UNC roster who will be coming after him. He's a big load and he's able to take on contact and keep moving. Swarming Thomas is every bit as important as using fundamental tackling technique to neutralize him.
The fewer tackles Thomas and the running backs can break for extra yards, the more chance UNC will have to dictate the terms of when Virginia Tech throws and when it runs. Stopping the run and determining when the Hokies pass will be more important in this game than any so far this season.
North Carolina wants to apply pressure on Thomas and make his life miserable, but they have to do it within reason. It does no good to blitz a bunch of guys if they're not creating enough confusion up front, or enough of a surge somewhere, to force Logan out of his comfort zone. Ask Wake Forest's Tanner Price, who had a field day against Carolina eating up the middle of the field where the UNC blitzing linebackers had been seconds earlier.
For Carolina, the challenge of this game is knowing when's the best time to blitz, and when's the best time to sit back and wait for what comes from Virginia Tech. The fact that the Hokies run the ball so much, and so successfully, means that UNC doesn't necessarily want to spend the whole game blitzing. But at the same time, a well-timed blitz could force Thomas into putting one up that might be a possible interception. With six interceptions in five games Thomas is averaging over a pick a game, so maybe the goal for UNC is to force a big turnover through pressure as much as trying to bring him to the ground.
Either way, UNC needs to be smart in the way it uses the blitz against this team. Virginia Tech is well-known for being superiorly coached by Frank Beamer and his staff, and few staffs in the country are better at making in-game and halftime adjustments. In what will assuredly be a chess match on grass, UNC's Vic Koenning and Dan Disch have to earn their paychecks with a delicate balance of heavy, aggressive blitzing and standard non-blitzing schemes.
Winning the battle of special teams will do more than gain yards, block punts or result in scores. It will shake the Hokies' minds collectively. Virginia Tech expects to be superior in this phase of the game, as much as opponents fear the Hokies will be. That's why Coach Fedora has spent all week praising the Virginia Tech special teams and the way they are coached in this discipline. If you take away the special teams phase for Virginia Tech, you take away one of the key ways they've won a bunch of games in the Beamer Era.
Typically when one says they're trying to make a team one-dimensional, you're talking about taking away a team's offense or defense. But to make Virginia Tech one-dimensional, you've got to take away either their offense or defense, while also figuring out a way to nullify their usual special teams advantage.
Standing up to Tech and bettering the Hokies in all phases of the kicking game would deal a psychological blow that would be hard to measure, yet it would be one that would absolutely have an effect on the outcome. Let's say Bernard returns a punt for a long gain or even a touchdown, and Romar Morris blocks another punt. So long as UNC is solid in its coverage and blocking schemes, it would be hard for Virginia Tech to top that.
The 'White Out' that UNC has put together has the fans, coaches, and players all excited. It's going to be a fun, festive atmosphere in Kenan Stadium with a big-name opponent, approximately 80 recruits expected, and fair skies and temperatures anticipated.
UNC needs to use the emotion and intensity that will surely come through the 'White Out' experience, and use it advantageously, especially early in the game. Virginia Tech is going to come out angry and trying to establish its dominance right out of the gate coming off last week's loss. UNC needs to counter that with its own surge of emotion and spirit.
In this game, against this opponent, momentum is more critical than ever, so the Tar Heels need to seize this 'White Out' and make a new part of the Carolina football experience. Who knows? Maybe the 'White Out' will replace the old powder blue UNC uniforms of the 1970s and '80s, or Clemson's all-orange look, as the go-to home attire in key games.