Five Keys: UNC at Virginia

Fresh off a stunning meltdown in a 68-50 basketball score loss to Georgia Tech last week, North Carolina (6-4, 3-3 ACC) heads to Charlottesville for a nationally-televised Thursday night encounter with Virginia (4-6, 2-4 ACC).
While the Cavaliers have struggled mightily at times this fall and recently had a six-game losing streak, they're currently playing their best football of the year, with recent wins over N.C. State on the road and most recently Miami last weekend at home.
UVa is still very much in the hunt for a bowl game and a shot at rising up in the wacky Coastal Division, which nobody seems to want to step up and claim as its own.
UNC's battle with the Cavaliers will be televised nationally on ESPN at 7:30 pm.
Publisher's Note:
For the past several years here at Tar Heel Illustrated our weekly pregame Ten Keys features have been done in collaboration by Adam Powell and Eddy Landreth, with Adam focusing in on five keys, and Eddy focusing on five additional keys to the game.
With the passing of our beloved friend and colleague Eddy, we are going to be doing our Ten Keys a little differently for these last two games of the 2012 season.
For these last two games this season against Virginia and Maryland, we will be doing just Five Keys as a tribute to Eddy and all the great work he did for this site, and all the enjoyable times we had together covering games and discussing North Carolina football.
In 2013 we will be returning to the weekly Ten Keys features our readers have come to expect over the years. We thank everyone for their understanding.
After what happened last Saturday in an inexplicable defensive implosion, North Carolina fans can't be optimistic that the Tar Heels are going to be able to shut down Virginia's offense the way that other ACC teams like Wake Forest and Duke did.
The Cavaliers have found something offensively the last two weeks, piling up 33 points in Raleigh and rallying for 40 points in a wild triumph over the Hurricanes.
For UNC, this should be a matter of simple pride. They're going on national television after surrendering the second-most points in school history in a game that was the highest-scoring in 60 years of league play in the ACC. They've been poor at times defending the pass against N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Louisville, Duke, and last week Georgia Tech. If there's ever been a time to step up, it's now. Time is running out.
If Carolina is to emerge from Charlottesville victorious for the second straight time after a nearly 30-year losing streak, the defense has to show up and play a little. They can't count on Carolina's offense to be the machine it's been most of the year and put up 50 points again---although that is possible.
Simply stated, the UNC secondary needs to step up and take away routes and force the Cavalier receivers out of their comfort zone with physicality and good footwork. They can't let Michael Rocco repeat or come close to last week's performance, when he set a school record with 18 straight pass completions against Miami.
Force Virginia to beat them on the ground, where they haven't been quite so solid this season, and UNC figures to have a better chance. The Cavaliers are seventh currently in the ACC in rushing yards per outing (136.7), which falls far below UNC's average of 201 rushing yards a game.
Virginia is a much more traditional offense that shouldn't give UNC nearly as many fits as Georgia Tech did, so Tar Heel fans can hold out some hope that this will be a week for the defense to rebound and pick up some of the pieces from that horrific outing last week in Kenan Stadium.
Last week Carolina's offense was virtually unstoppable save a couple of key errors, including a fumble in Georgia Tech territory and a Bryn Renner interception deep in UNC territory, which forced the Carolina defense into even worse situations than they were already in. Both of those turnovers were turned into TDs by the Yellow Jackets.
Virginia put together a remarkable late 16-play drive that ate up most of the field last week to beat Miami, so they've shown ability to move the ball in key moments. For North Carolina, the key is to make them do it again. If the Cavaliers are able to consistently drive 80-plus yards and score, then you have to tip your hat to them. But realistically, if Carolina can force the Cavaliers to play all night from a long field, its going to be tough for them to score a bunch of points unless the UNC defense lays another egg.
Virginia runs a rotation at times at quarterback with Rocco and Phillip Sims, and while the results have been mixed at times, things have really been clicking lately and both signal-callers will benefit from a short field and not having to march long distances if Carolina gives it to them.
Virginia ranks dead-last in the ACC in punt return average, as they're getting just 3.3 yards per return. So this figures to be an area that UNC might be able to exploit. Don't be afraid to punt the ball and attempt to pin Virginia deep. This could provide opportunities to force turnovers deep in UVa territory, as the Tar Heels got last week with Tim Scott's interception return for a score against Georgia Tech.
Carolina's chances of beating Virginia increase greatly if the Cavaliers aren't aided by good field position. Of course, if UNC can move the chains on offense, that will aid in the cause along with the punting of Thomas Hibbard.
Along with ranking dead-last in the ACC in punt return yardage, the Cavaliers are also 12th in the league in turnover margin. Through the season so far UVa has given away 22 turnovers while collecting just 10 themselves. When UNC finally broke its long losing streak in Scott Stadium back in 2010, turnovers were a key part of that win. It can be that way again for the Tar Heels so long as they're focused and execute on both sides of the ball.
UNC will make life harder on themselves defensively if they allow the Cavaliers to operate largely mistake-free as Georgia Tech did last week.
N.C. State's Mike Glennon nearly set a school record for passing yardage allowed by a Tar Heel secondary, but he also threw two key interceptions that helped UNC stay in the ballgame. The Tar Heels need to make similar plays against Virginia.
On the flip side, Carolina has to avoid the letdowns that plagued them last week. Hang onto the football. Renner needs to play soundly, and if he throws that high screen pass again, make sure he gets the ball over the defensive line.
UNC has a chance to dominate so long as they don't let Virginia's poor turnover ratio get flipped against them. That's the best way the Tar Heels can blow this one.
This is obviously a key every week for North Carolina's offense, but for Renner, this week is huge in terms of showcasing UNC's spread offense to recruits and fans nationwide and demonstrate to America that Tar Heel football is on the up and up.
And that means he needs to get the ball to Giovani Bernard and Quinshad Davis, plain and simple.
Bernard, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher who could very well be on his way to being named ACC Player of the Year this fall, needs to be every bit as active as he has been, running the ball all over the place and catching passes as well.
Davis, who is quickly emerging as one of Renner's favorite target, needs to keep building and growing in a game in which a lot of eyes will be on him.
Virginia's defense isn't exactly a juggernaut. They've allowed four out of 10 opponents (Georgia Tech, Louisiana Tech, Duke, and Miami) to score 40 or more points against them, while surprisingly last week was the first time all year UNC gave up more than 40.
Simply stated, Virginia's defense doesn't have enough depth and talent right now to handle the likes of Renner, Bernard, Davis, and the other playmakers in the UNC offense, so long as the Tar Heels execute. It could be a lot of fun to watch for Carolina fans so long as things are clicking.
In the first matchup between Larry Fedora and Mike London as head coaches in a game last fall, Fedora's Southern Miss squad claimed a 30-24 victory thanks to a number of key late decisions by Fedora and his coordinators, including offensive coordinator Blake Anderson.
Late in that game, Southern Miss QB Austin Davis executed a brilliant 41-yard swing pass that totally confused the UVa defense and set up the Golden Eagles for the game-winning score. This was just one of several examples where Fedora and his staff's in-game decision-making trumped that of London and his staff.
And now with Fedora and London, two up-and-coming young coaches both harboring high hopes for their future in the ACC Coastal Division, another opportunity lies for these two tacticians to see which one can come up with the better scheme and game plan.
Whether its making a decision to go for it on fourth down or punt, whether it's send an all-out blitz on a certain defensive play or go more passively, or whether it's a decision to run the ball or throw the ball, UNC's coaches need to be on their game and make the right moves tonight.
Certain decisions will always be second-guessed, but the bottom line is if something works out, it was a good decision. And UNC needs a lot of good decisions on the part of its coaching staff to help them overcome what appears to be a vastly improving opponent in hostile territory.