Who: Virginia Cavaliers (2-0, 0-0 ACC) vs. No. 21 North Carolina Tar Heels (1-1, 0-1 ACC)
When: Saturday, September 18th at 7:30pm
Where: Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
How to watch: ACC Network
All-time series: North Carolina leads 63-58-4, but Virginia has won the last four meetings. The series is 32-14-3 in favor of UNC in games played in Chapel Hill.
Last meeting: Virginia defeated then-No. 15 North Carolina 44-41 in Charlottesville.
North Carolina this season
The Tar Heels lost a number of talented playmakers, including wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome and running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter from their explosive offense that ranked ninth in the country in scoring in 2020. But UNC returns Heisman candidate Sam Howell to lead an offense full of new talented playmakers. North Carolina was ranked No. 10 in the country to start the season and was picked to finish first in the ACC Coastal in the preseason polls.
But the Tar Heels did not look like a top-ten team or the favorite to win the Coastal in their first game, as Virginia Tech held UNC to just ten points in a 17-10 Hokie victory in Blacksburg in the season-opener. Howell threw three interceptions and just one touchdown and was sacked six times in the loss. UNC was two of ten on third down conversions and managed just 354 yards of total offense as Virginia Tech shut down the Tar Heels.
The Carolina offense woke up in week two at home against Georgia State, putting up 607 yards of total offense and winning 59-17. Howell threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns and added 104 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
The UNC defense has been consistent through the first two games, giving up 17 points in both games. Virginia Tech managed 296 yards of total offense while Georgia State had 271 total yards against North Carolina.
By the Numbers
|By the Numbers||Virginia||North Carolina|
42.5 points per game
34.5 points per game
160.5 yards per game
173.5 yards per game
381.0 yards per game
307.0 yards per game
550.5 yards per game
480.5 yards per game
7.0 ppg allowed
17.0 ppg allowed
260.0 ypg allowed
283.5 ypg allowed
North Carolina Players to Watch
Quarterback Sam Howell
This one is pretty obvious. It seems that UNC will go how Howell goes this season. Virginia Tech applied pressure on Howell frequently and did not allow him to be comfortable in the pocket. The outcome? Howell was way off his game against the Hokies, throwing for just 208 yards and getting picked off three times and sacked six times. Against Georgia State, Howell generated 456 yards of total offense and five total touchdowns. His performance against a UVA defense which Howell has put up big numbers against in the past two years will be one of the main factors determining who wins this game.
Receiver Josh Downs
Downs has been a picture of consistency for the Tar Heel offense thus far this season, recording very similar and decent receiving numbers in both games. In week one, Downs had eight receptions for 123 yards and caught UNC’s only touchdown of the game. Last week, Downs again had eight receptions, racking up 73 yards and another touchdown. In that game, however, Downs was not alone, as he was one of four players to have a receiving touchdown against Georgia State.
North Carolina loves to pass. But when they run the ball, look for Ty Chandler to get the majority of the carries. Chandler has picked up 124 yards and a touchdown on 25 rushing attempts this season. So far, Chandler has not been able to fill the shoes of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, as Howell has been the leading rusher for the Tar Heels. It should be a priority for the UVA front seven to ensure UNC does not establish its running game in this one.
Three keys to the game for Virginia
1. Control time of possession
In the loss against Virginia Tech, Howell and the UNC offense had the ball for just 25:01 for the entire game, including a little over nine minutes of possession in the first half. Part of the reason the Tar Heels could not score against the Hokies was that they simply did not have the ball. Similarly, in Virginia’s upset win over North Carolina last season, the Cavaliers had the ball for 34:34 as compared to UNC’s 25:26. The game-winning play was a fourth-down conversion from Keytaon Thompson. Howell had been leading a furious comeback and there was little question that UNC would have scored again to take the lead if the Tar Heels had gotten the ball back. Virginia won the game by making sure the UNC offense stayed off the field.
2. Put pressure on Sam Howell and prevent the deep ball
We have already demonstrated the importance of making sure Howell does not have time to get comfortable in the pocket. Howell has repeatedly torched the UVA secondary on deep balls in the past two meetings and we should expect him to try to do so again this time around. It is critical that the UVA pass rush get to Howell before he can even attempt to complete long passes. Virginia Tech was able to successfully pressure Howell into several mistakes in the season opener, including three interceptions.
3. Physical play, especially at the line of scrimmage
It is no secret how badly UNC wants to win this game. However, the Tar Heels “wanting it more” is no excuse for the Hoos to be at a disadvantage in terms of effort and energy. UNC Coach Mack Brown noted that Virginia “was more physical than we were” in the last meeting in Charlottesville. Expect the Tar Heels to focus on rectifying that factor. UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall says the Cavaliers are prepared for a physical battle. “You have to be physical,” Mendenhall said. “You have to be tough. You have to play hard. And then you have to execute your assignments and techniques. That is kind of the core of what it takes to repeat as division champion or to remain consistent in college football.” The team that wins the line of scrimmage will likely also take home the win on Saturday night.
What’s at Stake
Beyond the aforementioned four-game Virginia winning streak in the series, the outcome of this game will have major implications for the ACC Coastal standings. North Carolina entered the season as the favorite to win the ACC Coastal and take a shot at knocking Clemson off of its throne in the ACC title game. But if the Tar Heels drop this game against UVA, they will be 0-2 in conference play, with both losses coming against division rivals. UNC will have quite the uphill battle to climb from there to win the Coastal. Virginia, on the other hand, hopes to join Virginia Tech at the top of the Coastal standings as the Hoos look to make a run at defending their ACC Coastal title.