Three notes ahead of North Carolina's game against Virginia
Three weeks ago, Saturday's game would have been a good test to see whether or not North Carolina could break out of its early-season slump. Three weeks ago, the Tar Heels (1-5, ACC 0-3) would be looking to prove they could rekindle some of that 2015 season magic.
It’s not three weeks ago, though, and North Carolina still has only one win against unranked Old Dominion. The last two games have been blowouts, and UNC has been looking for answers all season. Things could be more of the same against a surprisingly successful Virginia team (4-1, ACC 1-0).
Notre Dame proved the unit still hasn’t come together like fans have been waiting for, and UNC still lacks consistent offensive options. Available talent will always be an issue for this injury-riddled team, but here are three things to keep in mind before Saturday's game.
Will UNC's lack of run defense matter?
Last week against Notre Dame, the Tar Heels surrendered 341 rushing yards. The game before at Georgia Tech, they gave up 403. And against Louisville, they gave up 312. Some of this is the responsibility of elite rushers in the form of Louisville’s reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Georgia Tech’s TaQuon Marshall.
Virginia only ranks No. 105 in the nation right now in rushing offense, averaging just 122.6 yards per game. It remains to be seen whether the Cavaliers have the talent to take advantage of the gaps the UNC defense has given to opposing rushers.
The Cavaliers have a solid running back in Jordan Ellis, but his season-high against Duke was just 96 rushing yards. He does, however, have a team-leading six touchdowns, and UNC has to be able to stop him from barreling it in whenever Virginia gets in the red zone.
Outside of Ellis, UVA's rush attack is sparse with no other player having even 20 carries so far this season. That being said, UNC needs to prove it can step up its game even against an inferior running offense. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 121 nationally in run defense, allowing 5.2 yards per attempt. The team is porous right now, and its best hope may be if Virginia looks to throw it downfield with quarterback Kurt Benkert (1,431 yards, 13 touchdowns).
But Virginia has talent in there, too. Olamide Zaccheaus, who has played at running back and wide receiver for the Cavaliers, has 38 catches this season. His 7.6 catches per game average is tied for 12th most in the country. Zaccheaus is one of three Virginia players with at least 300 receiving yards and three touchdowns this year.
Can UNC break through Virginia's defense?
Right now, Virginia holds onto its 4-1 record because of its No. 25 ranked defense. The Cavaliers are only allowing 21.2 points a game on the year. So far in the season, North Carolina’s greatest strength has been its passing offense, but UVA and its No. 16 pass defense could make life difficult for UNC’s young and inexperienced receivers.
UNC must find a way to move the ball downfield if it wants to have a chance. Against Notre Dame, the Tar Heels had only 13 first downs, including one off a penalty, and only managed to make it into the red zone twice, converting once. Somebody needs to step up on offense and make plays, whether that’s receivers Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Jordan Cunningham or quarterback Chazz Surratt carrying the ball himself.
UVA won't make it easy for the Tar Heels though, boasting the ACC Defensive Back of the Week with Quin Blanding who recorded eight tackles and a pick-six against Duke last week. The senior will make life as difficult as possible for UNC's receivers and looks to continue his dominant play.
Can UNC stop its bleeding points?
So far, UNC’s opponents have averaged a disheartening 33 points per game, and its overall defense is in the bottom 20 in the nation. The Notre Dame game, however, showed that the unit may be finding a rhythm.
Virginia might not be known for its offense, but it did just hang 28 points on the No. 16 defense, Duke, in its last outing. This come after recording six touchdowns against Boise State, winning the game in dominant fashion, 42-23. And even if the UNC defense does give the offense a chance, the offense will need to prove that it can find any kind of consistency in advancing the ball.