Virginia versus North Carolina — a breakdown

sp-FootballKeysEllis-MFraser

Junior tailback Jordan Ellis rushed for a career high 136 yards in the victory at North Carolina.

Mariana Fraser | Cavalier Daily


With a bye week immediately following a huge road win for Virginia, many wondered how the team would play against Duke this past Saturday. Would this be a trap game for a Virginia football team that was playing above expectations, or would Virginia rise to the occasion? The Cavaliers answered those questions this past Saturday in a gutsy win over the Blue Devils, showing that they are a team that is not resting on its successes of previous weeks. 

It will be interesting to see if Virginia can win its fourth-straight game this weekend, as it gets set to take on North Carolina. This week, the CD Sports staff takes a look at some players and keys to watch out for this Saturday. 

Players to Watch 

Senior free safety Quin Blanding

As one of Virginia’s best players and team’s leaders, Blanding already plays a huge role on a 4-1 Virginia football team that is surprising fans and critics alike. However, this past Saturday’s win over Duke showed exactly why Blanding is the player the Cavaliers need to play well. Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert, who had been on fire in recent weeks, struggled early on against Duke. He threw two interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown. Blanding’s pick-six in the first quarter proved monumental in ensuring that Virginia did not fall behind early, giving Benkert some time to find his rhythm. Blanding needs to take advantage of an injury-plagued North Carolina receiving corps to keep Virginia in close games while allowing for the offense to pull away as the game progresses. 

Junior tailback Jordan Ellis

Since taking over the reigns at starting running back at the beginning of the season, Ellis has put up a respectable 81.6 rushing yards per game in Virginia’s pass-heavy offense. Against Duke, the junior quietly rushed for 96 yards against a defense that was giving up only 80 per game. Though he only averages four yards per carry, Ellis is a workhorse who can get the offense into a great rhythm when he’s performing well.

With that said, Ellis has the chance for a breakout game against North Carolina’s leaky rush defense. The Tar Heels have allowed opponents to run for 247.1 yards per game against them this year, and were recently gashed by the running attacks of Georgia Tech and Notre Dame for more than 340 yards each. North Carolina has been sneakily decent against the pass, but it hasn’t faced a great passing quarterback this season besides Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson. Ellis can help Virginia put this game to bed and take some pressure off Benkert with a big pressure on the ground. He’s due for a big game, and this may be his best shot yet.

Keys to the Game

Turnovers 

Benkert had been stellar in avoiding turnovers through the first four games of the season this year. Through four games, he had only one interception. He threw twice as many in Saturday’s win over Duke, including a pick-six. Though Virginia pulled out the victory, Benkert will have to avoid costly turnovers help Virginia gain a bowl game berth. The Cavaliers are a team that has begun to be noticed, even receiving votes in the Coaches Poll this week. Thus, Benkert will need to minimize mistakes that opponents can take advantage of. As Virginia plays better offenses this season, it won’t be able to always rely on its defense forcing turnovers and scoring  to stay in the game. Benkert will need to lead Virginia to hotter starts right out of the gate, so that Virginia’s talented defense can play more freely and with less pressure. 

Keeping constant pressure on offense

The Virginia offense has shown this season that it can be explosive and score in spurts with prolific wins over Connecticut and Boise State. In the other three games, however, the offense has been a bit inconsistent and sluggish at times, forcing the Cavalier defense to spend a lot of time on the field. Though the defense has answered the call many times, Virginia will surely look to correct some efficiency issues with some winnable games this month. Look for Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall to throw some wrinkles into the offense against North Carolina — perhaps some wildcat looks with freshman all-purpose player De’Vante Cross or one of his famous trick plays — to try to confuse the Tar Heel defense and keep it on its toes. Benkert may show more aggression through the air, reverting to more of a Boise State mentality than the short-passing game he had to employ against Duke. If he and the offense can find some constant success in moving the ball throughout the game, North Carolina will have a hard time hanging around on Saturday. If not, this game could get tenuously close. 

related stories