On Saturday, the No. 21 North Carolina football team will get a second crack at an ACC Coastal opponent this season when it welcomes the Virginia Cavaliers to Kenan Stadium.
UNC hopes to build off the momentum from its fiery offensive performance in a 59-17 victory against Georgia State last weekend.
The Tar Heels will have to bring their play to the next level if they want to retake control of the South’s Oldest Rivalry. The Cavaliers have defeated UNC in the last four matchups, and are off to a hot start this season after trouncing William & Mary and Illinois in their first two games.
Dual-threat quarterbacks have consistently caused problems for the UNC defense, and that's something the Cavaliers have exploited in recent years. In the past three seasons, Virginia quarterbacks have averaged 96.7 rushing yards per game against UNC.
Problems with containing the QB run popped up once again in UNC’s season-opening loss to Virginia Tech, as the Tar Heels allowed Braxton Burmeister to run for 42 yards and a touchdown. UNC’s pass rush looked more cohesive against Georgia State though, as they were able to relatively contain the Panthers' run game.
Virginia starter Brennan Armstrong – who, discounting yards lost from sacks, rushed for 89 yards in last year’s matchup – will be back under center Saturday night. Armstrong is benefitting from an offensive line that is returning all of its starters from last year, and in his first two games this season he has leaned on his passing game. Against Illinois, he threw for 405 yards and five touchdowns.
The Tar Heels’ secondary should have its hands full against Virginia receivers Keytaon Thompson, Billy Kemp IV and Jelani Woods. Thompson is a highly regarded transfer from Mississippi State, and Kemp led the team in receiving yards last season, while Woods exploded in his last game against Illinois, with 122 receiving yards on five receptions and a touchdown.
Armstrong doesn’t seem to have a preferred target among them, opting instead to spread the offensive load across all receivers.
If the Cavaliers can sustain its offensive output come Saturday, this game could very well turn into a shootout. Of course, a quarterback like UNC’s junior star Sam Howell – who became the program’s all-time touchdown pass leader against Virginia Tech – is well equipped to handle a fast paced game.
In last season’s matchup, both teams put up a combined 85 points, with Virginia besting the Tar Heels by three. Howell threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns in that game. Howell may have lost many of the offensive weapons that were at his disposal last year, but last Saturday gave the first glimpse of what this season’s offense could look like at its peak.
Not only did Howell throw for 352 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia State, he also ran for over 100 yards. Unlike the Virginia Tech game in which sophomore Josh Downs was the only reliable receiver, senior Antoine Green and junior Emery Simmons both had impressive performances, which suggest they are ready to step into larger roles in the offense.
UVA had one of the worst defenses in the ACC last season, allowing 443 yards and 30 points per game. Saturday will be UNC’s chance to showcase its offense to the rest of the ACC and get the season back on track for the former preseason No. 10 team.