Big Game Preview: UVA football hosts rival UNC in key ACC contest

uva north carolinaRemember last year, after UVA had a big win at Boise State, then beat Duke, and next had a one-win UNC team.

You assumed that one would be the easy one, and it was anything but.

The ‘Hoos escaped Chapel Hill with a 20-14 win, and it took a Chris Peace sack at midfield with a minute to go, and a fortunate no-call on Peace, who grabbed QB Brandon Harris’ facemask while making the sack, to seal the deal.

The 2018 Cavaliers come into UNC week off big wins over Miami and Duke, and the Heels (1-5, 1-3 ACC), as has been the case the past couple of years, reeling, their only win coming a month ago at home against Pitt.

But, Carolina has actually been playing a bit better of late. Honestly, UNC should have beaten Virginia Tech at home two weeks ago, leading 19-14 in the fourth, about ready to punch in a game-clinching score, when Michael Carter fumbled at the Tech 1 with six minutes left, and the Hokies drove 98 yards to the winning score with 19 seconds left.

Then, last week, the Heels led Syracuse by a touchdown in the fourth quarter before the Orange rallied at home to win by a field goal in two overtimes.

So, is this the Carolina team now, competitive, or was the past two weeks an aberration from the UNC that lost 47-10 to Miami and 41-19 to East Carolina?

The truth, as with most things in life, is probably somewhere in the middle.

Inside UNC Football

The Heels’ big issue is not being able to stop anybody, allowing 34.8 points per game, 13th in the ACC, and 411.0 yards per game, 10th in the ACC.

Turnovers have also been a hindrance. Carolina stands at -8 on the season, basically giving opponents a +1 per game.

Carolina runs for 187.8 yards per game, eighth in the ACC, led by Antonio Williams (424 yards, 4 TDs, 6.5 yards per carry) and Carter (292 yards, 7.1 yards per carry).

QB Nathan Elliott, a 6’1” junior, put up nice numbers in the loss last week at Syracuse, throwing for 321 yards and two touchdowns, completing 34 of his 52 pass attempts.

On the season, Elliott has thrown for 1,241 yards and six touchdowns, with four interceptions, a 61.2 percent completion rate and a 120.4 passer-efficiency rating, 10th in the ACC.

His top targets are Anthony Ratliff-Williams (25 catches, 14.2 yards per catch) and Dazz Newsome (25 catches, 10.8 yards per catch).

Inside UVA Football

First, an injury update. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday that he expects tailback Jordan Ellis (619 yards, 7 TDs, 5.4 yards per carry) to be at full strength on Saturday, after leaving the 28-14 win at Duke late in the second quarter after suffering a left ankle injury.

QB Bryce Perkins (1,406 yards, 12 TDs/7 INTs, 62.6 percent completion rate; 463 yards, 5 TDs, 4.1 yards per carry on the ground) had a nice bounceback game in the win at Duke. After throwing a combined five INTs in the loss at N.C. State and the win over Miami, Perkins played error-free football at Duke, throwing for 189 yards and a touchdown and running for 61 yards and two TDs.

Virginia ranks third in the ACC defensively in scoring (18.4 points per game) and total defense (326.0 yards per game). Bryce Hall, the reigning, defending ACC Defensive Back of the Week, has lapped the field in the passes defensed category, with 16, seven more than Boston College’s Hamp Cheevers, who ranks second in that category.

Teammate Juan Thornhill, for his part, is tied for the league lead in INTs (4), and linebacker Chris Peace is seventh in sacks (4) and eighth in tackles for loss (9).

How This One Plays Out

I almost don’t want to say it out loud, because the last two weeks, I picked against the ‘Hoos, thinking that Miami and Duke would each win tight games.

The Miami game was tight, and UVA made the big plays. The Duke game wasn’t tight at all, and may have been the more impressive win of the two.

UNC is not, on paper, anyway, in UVA’s league, but the Heels have been playing better of late.

Coach Larry Fedora has a feet and a couple of toes out the door at this stage, but he’s been able to get his guys to play well against a pair of good teams after getting the doors blown off by Miami and ECU.

We get to see Saturday how this UVA team plays in relation to expectations. The fan base is starting to think out loud about the possibility of a trip to the ACC Championship Game, which is on the table, definitely, with winnable games against UNC, Pitt and Georgia Tech preceding what could be a winner-take-all showdown with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Black Friday.

Gotta win those winnable games first, of course.

Virginia should win this one. The defense has been too good lately to make you think there’s any chance of a letdown, and the offense should be able to take advantage of a bad Carolina D.

  • Line: UVA -9.5
  • Prediction: UVA 38, UNC 14

Preview by Chris Graham

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