Last week, the 3-4 North Carolina football team earned its first ACC win of 2014 with a thrilling 48-43 victory over Georgia Tech. Despite a four-game losing streak, somehow, the Tar Heels still remain alive in the wide open Coastal division.
Virginia comes in with a 4-3 record and 2-1 mark in the ACC. The Cavaliers squandered a golden opportunity to seize control of the Coastal last weekend in Durham, falling to Duke 20-13. And with a brutal schedule ahead of them that includes games at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State, the Wahoos understand the significance of Saturday’s 12:30 matchup in the ‘South’s Oldest Rivalry’.
Two of the oldest and most prestigious public universities in the nation will face off for their 119th meeting. Carolina leads the all-time series with Virginia 60-54-4
The UNC offense is rolling. Marquise Williams’ dual-threat ability, in particular, has been beautiful to watch the past couple weeks against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The last two weeks, Carolina has played in the highest scoring game in Notre Dame Stadium history and the most total offense yards in Kenan Stadium history.
Playing the best football of his career, Williams enters this week ranking 17th in total offense at 318 yards per game. What’s more, in a welcome development for head coach Larry Fedora and staff, the Tar Heels received valuable contributions from running back T.J. Logan against Georgia Tech. If the ground game can get going, it will make this already potent UNC attack all the more impossible to stop.
As for the Cavaliers, they rely heavily on senior running back Kevin Parks. Parks is one of the premier backs in the ACC and always runs hard. He’ll certainly be a handful for the Tar Heel defenders.
As for the quarterback position, in the past three games, UVA head coach Mike London has gone with Matt Johns. He’s been struggling with his accuracy and even more so, with his execution in the red zone. Last week, the Cavalier offense’s inability to get the ball in the end zone for touchdowns cost them big-time against the Blue Devils. We know the Wahoos should experience more success against a porous UNC secondary, but will UVA convert enough scoring opportunities into 6 points when the field shrinks on them?
The Tar Heels are steadily improving week-to-week. I know the scoreboard hasn’t necessarily shown it, but greater defensive energy and more pressure being applied up front has been noticeable in recent weeks. Even more encouraging for the Tar Heels is their ability, so far, to force key turnovers. But missed tackling and a porous secondary can still double-team to give up disastrous big plays for the Tar Heels at inopportune times. Let’s be honest, UNC ranks dead last in the ACC in scoring defense, averaging giving up north of 40 points each game. But thankfully for UNC, Virginia’s offense doesn’t have the kind of firepower they’ve been facing for most of 2014.
Virginia, on the other hand, finds its identity in its stingy defense. The Cavaliers are ninth in total defense when playing FBS competition, and few teams attack the quarterback better. The Wahoos have 22 sacks, which ranks 12th in the country. Against a young UNC offensive line, expect the Virginia defensive linemen to win plenty of one-on-one battles in the trenches. The key for the Cavaliers, though, will be whether they are able to force turnovers and set up a short field for the offense.
The Tar Heels pride themselves in solid special teams. So far, their kickoff return coverage has been sublime, leading the ACC and placing 10th in the nation. Their field goal kicking, meanwhile, remains a question mark with new addition Nick Weiler’s longest field goal being under 25 yards. What’s more, Coach Fedora is still waiting on that game-changing play from his shifty sparkplug Ryan Switzer in the return game.
The Cavaliers are solid, but not spectacular in the third phase of the game. However, if the game comes down to a field goal, UVA has to like their chances more than UNC. Ian Frye hasn’t missed a field goal inside 40 yards the entire season, booting a perfect 10/10. The home crowd at Scott Stadium should provide a helpful boost to the Cavaliers, but it’s not an overly intimidating venue, especially given the stadiums the Tar Heels have visited this year.
This game will come down to whether the UNC offense or the Virginia defense is better in comparison to their opposing counterparts. Is the Carolina offensive attack capable of running away and hiding from a lackluster UVA offense? Or is the Cavalier defense far superior to the Tar Heel defense and able to come up with more stops through four quarters? It’s an intriguing question.
My guess? The Cavalier defense is far superior. But their offense is also overmatched by a UNC offensive machine that is now humming like a top-of-the-line sports car. It’s a classic contrast in styles.
Personally, I prefer a team that is built around a defense, but in today’s world of college football, I’m going with the more prolific offense. The Tar Heels will be slowed down and Williams will be under a tremendous amount of pressure all afternoon, but UNC will do what they’ve done well all season long – finish off drives and convert in the red zone. And I don’t think an undeniably well-coached, but yet offensively challenged Virginia team will keep up.
UNC 35, UVA 24