Three Reasons Why North Carolina Could Beat Virginia Tech
The 2-0 #19 Virginia Tech Hokies head to Chapel Hill to face the 2-0 #8 North Carolina Tar Heels in one of the premier match-ups of the season for the ACC this Saturday.
This is the game that both Virginia Tech and North Carolina fans had circled - a measuring stick game that will take the temperature of two programs jockeying for position both in an emerging conference, as well as on the recruiting trail.
Are these teams contenders or pretenders?
While this should be a hard-fought game between two quality ACC programs, there remains a clear path to victory for both teams heading into the match-up.
Here are the three reasons why North Carolina could beat Virginia Tech on Saturday.
1. North Carolina's rushing defense is as good as the stats indicate
The story of the game that has been latched onto by several national media outlets is the battle up front between Virginia Tech's rushing offense and North Carolina's rushing defense. Entering play this Saturday, Virginia Tech holds the top rushing offense in the Power Five, averaging better than seven yards per carry and 319 yards per game as a team.
North Carolina meanwhile, boasts one of the nation's top rushing defenses, allowing a mere 2.0 yards per rush and 54 yards per game.
This sounds like the clash of the titans up front...until you consider who each team has played.
Virginia Tech's rushing offense was certainly helped by playing NC State's defense in the opener, as the Wolfpack allow 4.37 yards per attempt and 185 yards per game on the ground. Duke's rushing defense was better than advertised heading into the Virginia Tech game, but after the Hokies ran through that defensive front, Duke now holds a bottom five rushing defense in the ACC, yielding 4.53 yards per attempt.
North Carolina's front seven is without a doubt the strength of the defensive unit, but it's hard to take the ridiculously-stout defensive statistics at face value when the 'Heels have faced the 13th-ranked rushing offense in the ACC in Syracuse and the 15th (last) ranked rushing offense in the ACC in Boston College in back-to-back games to start the season.
Something's gotta give here.
Is North Carolina's rushing defense truly as good as the statistics indicate? If so, Virginia Tech will have to find other ways to matriculate the ball down the field in bad weather.
2. Virginia Tech's defense struggles to contain North Carolina running back Michael Carter
Virginia Tech's rushing offense is far-and-away the most efficient rushing unit in the ACC right now, but North Carolina's isn't too far behind.
While quarterback Sam Howell and his outstanding receiving corps grab the headlines offensively, it's been the rushing offense that's been powering the Tar Heels through the first two games of the season.
Led by lead rusher Michael Carter, the Tar Heels are averaging 4.54 yards per carry on the ground this season, a mark that puts UNC fourth in the ACC in that department. Carter has carried the ball 23 times for 199 yards this season, averaging 8.7 yards per carry in the process.
Virginia Tech's rushing defense has been decent, but far from stout. Missed tackles have plagued the Hokies in portions of games against NC State and Duke, which is an area of concern heading into the game against the Tar Heels, who boast the best running back that Tech has faced all season in Carter. Even despite some up-and-down returns from the rushing defense, the Hokies still come into the match-up sixth in the ACC in yards per attempt allowed at 3.52 yards per carry.
The Hokies haven't been bad, but there are some elements to clean up defensively. Getting starters back from quarantine should help, but the fundamentals of tackling will be critical, regardless of who is in the game defensively on Saturday.
3. The health of Virginia Tech's secondary, the weather, and other items of COVID randomness
This is my catch-all section for "elements out of Virginia Tech's control."
For the second consecutive game last Saturday against Duke, the Hokies were without 20+ players and multiple assistant coaches. The hardest hit position group this time around was the secondary, where the Hokies were without their top four defensive backs and were forced to play reserves at several spots in the secondary.
As Justin Fuente told the media, "the kids played hard," which is true...they did.
However, the Virginia Tech secondary is going to need to have a few starting pieces back against North Carolina's high-powered offense in order to have a chance against this Tar Heels passing attack. The Hokies will need more than grit and effort - they'll need talent and skill in this game to keep up defensively against Sam Howell and his fleet of receivers.
That is...unless the weather is horrific.
Ah, yes, the weather.
For the second time in four years, this match-up in Chapel Hill has a chance to be affected by a hurricane. That worked out well for Virginia Tech back in 2016, as the Hokies cruised to an easy victory in the rain over the ranked Tar Heels, which renewed a budding rivalry between both fan bases that is as confrontational as ever before.
If the rain becomes a factor, the first two points I mentioned in this piece become all the more important. However, if the weather is not as bad as expected, Virginia Tech's defensive personnel and coaches (whoever those may be for this game), must be prepared to defend both the pass and the rush.
Aside from Clemson, North Carolina represents the most balanced offense on Virginia Tech's schedule. It won't be an easy task on Saturday, but we'll soon find out if the Hokies are up to the challenge.