Game Preview: Does UVA football have a prayer at North Carolina on Saturday?

UVaHelmet_1North Carolina is, in a word, good. The Tar Heels (5-1, 2-0 ACC) have run off five straight wins since the increasingly inexplicable loss in their season opener to reeling South Carolina, and how they’re winning is as impressive as how many.

UNC is averaging an ACC-best 40.5 points per game, and the defense under first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is giving up just 17.3 points per game.

It’s the D that was missing in recent years. Last year, particularly, was ghastly: Carolina gave up 497.8 yards and 39.0 points per game en route to a 6-7 finish.

The 2015 group is giving up 349.3 yards per game, ranking second in the ACC in pass defense (135.5 yards per game) and fourth in pass-efficiency defense (101.9 opponent passer rating).

The one weakness in the UNC defense comes against the run. The Heels are allowing 213.8 yards per game on the ground, 14th in the ACC, and 4.5 yards per carry.

Four of North Carolina’s six opponents have gained 200+ yards on the ground this season, though Wake Forest, last week in a 50-14 loss, ran for 113 yards and gained just 2.6 yards per carry on 43 rush attempts.

So maybe Chizik has shored up the run defense, or maybe that was a one-off. It would seem either way that opponents would want to game-plan to try to run on Carolina, to keep the chains moving and also to keep the clock moving so that the potent UNC offense can’t do its magic.

Whether Virginia, ranked 14th in the ACC in rush offense (112.5 yards per game) and tied for 13th in the conference (with Wake Forest) in yards per rush attempt (3.3 yards per carry) is capable of exploiting that one weakness is the question of the day.

UVA offense vs. North Carolina defense Virginia has been better running the ball the past two weeks, putting up 184 yards in its 44-38 triple-OT win over Syracuse last week and 139 yards in a 26-19 loss at Pitt two weeks ago, averaging 4.4 yards per rush over that span. Matt Johns has put up modest numbers thus far – 117-for-191 (61.3 percent), 1,432 yards, 11 TDs, eight interceptions, 134.9 passer rating), and has had trouble getting into a rhythm with his wideouts. Only Canaan Severin (30 catches for 418 yards) has more than eight catches this season.

UNC offense vs. Virginia defense Quarterback Marquise Williams is a threat through the air (84-for-131, 64.1 percent, 1,127 yards, nine TDs, 6 INTs, 149.9 passer rating) and on the ground (405 yards, 7.2 yards per rush, five TDs rushing). Certainly don’t overlook tailback Elijah Hood (551 yards, 6.9 yards per carry). Williams’ top targets in the passing game are Quinshad Davis (24 catches for 288 yards) and deep threat Mack Hollins (24.5 yards per catch, five TDs on 11 receptions). The UVA defense is 14th in the ACC in scoring defense (36.2 points per game), total defense (413.0 yards per game), pass defense (252.3 yards per game) and pass-efficiency defense (161.9 opponent passer rating).

Special Teams Virginia punter Nicholas Conte averages 46.4 yards per punt, but only four of his 24 kicks have been downed inside the 20. Ian Frye is 6-of-9 on field goals, a perfect 5-of-5 inside of 40 yards, and 1-of-4 from 40+. UNC doesn’t punt much – its two punters (Corbin Daly and Hunter Lent) have combined for 14 punts this season through six games. They average 36.1 yards per kick, with four downed inside the 20. Nick Weiler is 8-of-10 on field goals, including 4-of-5 from 40+. Punt returner Ryan Switzer has averaged 16.8 yards per return on 12 attempts with a touchdown, and kickoff returner T.J. Logan has averaged 23.1 yards per return on nine attempts.

How This One Plays Out Virginia needs to avoid turnovers and other stupid mistakes (delay of game, formation, false start penalties) on offense, with a game plan that generates as much as possible on the ground, to take advantage of the Carolina D’s one weak point, and to try to keep the ball away from the UNC offense. On defense, the Cavs need to force the Carolina offense into turnovers, and even then you have to assume that the Heels are going to move the ball when it doesn’t turn it over. The margin for error here is slim, if it exists at all. North Carolina is the class of the Coastal Division in 2015, and will demonstrate that thoroughly on Saturday. Final: North Carolina 52, UVA 13.

– Column by Chris Graham

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