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The Daily Tar Heel

Preview: UNC football prepares for the South's Oldest Rivalry game against Virginia


UNC junior wide receiver Josh Downs (11) runs with the ball during the homecoming football game against Pitt at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. UNC beat Pitt 42-24.

The day after the North Carolina football team's comeback win against Pitt, head coach Mack Brown sat down with the team to discuss the No. 17 Tar Heels’ ranking in the AP Poll. He didn’t sugarcoat its meaning.

“Ten years from now, people aren’t going to ask you where you were rated after game eight,” Brown told his players. “They’re going to ask you where you were rated at the end of the year.”

The Tar Heels head into “The South’s Oldest Rivalry” game against Virginia on a four-game winning streak. UVA, who sits at 3-5, has had a shaky first season under new head coach Tony Elliott, but UNC can't write off the Cavaliers, a team that has played close games against Syracuse and Miami.

The Tar Heels must also adapt after unexpected injuries to several key starters . 

On Monday, the team announced that graduate jack Noah Taylor, junior defensive end Desmond Evans and sophomore running back Caleb Hoodwill all be out for the season following injuries from Saturday’s game.

To gain their fifth-straight victory, the Tar Heels will have to be deliberate, prepared and focus on these three areas.

Working around UVA’s defense in the red zone

UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo called this game a "mental challenge," saying that Virginia’s versatility in coverage will pose a unique challenge for his offense. In UVA’s game against Syracuse, the Cavaliers only allowed one touchdown to the Orange.

“They keep everything in front of them, they’re going to make you earn it,” Longo said. “Drives are probably going to be longer when you’re scoring them.” 

Given its multiple coverage strategy all over the field, Longo said Virginia’s defense is especially “conducive” to the red zone. UNC cannot stretch the defense vertically in that area, and defensive players can better control the smaller space with their coverage scheme. To combat this, the Tar Heels must limit the amount of third downs they face in the red zone.

Longo specifically honed in on two Virginia cornerbacks, junior Fentrell Cypress II and graduate Anthony Johnson, who will line up against the receiver duo of Josh Downs and Antoine Green. Both Cypress and Johnson are adept at breaking up pass plays and have made significant leaps from their performances last season.

Stopping the mobile Brennan Armstrong

Senior starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong has had particular success against UNC. Though the Cavaliers lost the teams’ 2021 matchup, Armstrong set a school single-game passing record of 554 yards.

“When it comes to him as a quarterback, he is the same talented, very skilled guy that’s got great open-field mobility, and scares you as a runner,” Assistant Head Coach for Defense Gene Chizik said. 

Armstrong has only improved this year, averaging over 44 rushing yards per game this season. UNC’s defense will have to focus on limiting his time in the pocket and improvisation. Chizik also consistently emphasized the need to stop explosive plays.

According to Chizik, the combination of Armstrong and his receivers creates “an offense that can explode on you at any minute.” Junior Dontayvion Wicks caught four passes for 99 yards against Georgia Tech on Oct. 20.

Scoring on the road, especially before the fourth quarter

Road games have been a particular struggle for the team since Brown's return. UNC is 17-6 at home and 11-12 away from Kenan Stadium over the past three-and-a-half seasons, but Brown said he doesn’t know what caused the team to falter. 

“You have to play better on the road than you do at home to have a chance to win,” Brown said.

While the team has found more success on the road this season, Brown said he's still not satisfied with the way UNC has performed in several close games, including the shootout against Appalachian State and the last-minute win against Duke.

The Tar Heels often score most of their points in the fourth quarter, but Brown said he wants the team to put away its games earlier. Against the Panthers on Saturday, UNC scored 21 points in the fourth quarter after three single-touchdown quarters. In Charlottesville, UNC will need to score early and consistently to prevent a late-game shootout against a tricky UVA defense.

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