Virginia vs. North Carolina — A breakdown

sp-keyshanback-courtesyvaathletics

Junior defensive lineman Eli Hanback has played an increasingly important role on the Cavaliers' defense.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Riding a two-game winning streak, the Cavaliers are gearing up to host North Carolina. Virginia needs only one more win to become bowl-eligible. The Cavalier Daily sports staff takes a look at some key players and keys to the game that could help the Cavaliers (5-2, 3-1 ACC) defeat the Tar Heels (1-5, 1-3 ACC) and become bowl-eligible in back-to-back years for the first time since going to four consecutive bowl games from 2002-05. 

Players to watch:

Virginia cornerback Tim Harris 

As the defense continues to play a consistently solid and clean game, there are fewer areas that opponents can exploit as weaknesses. In fact, it’s starting to look as though opponents have to avoid playing into Virginia’s strengths. One of those strengths is junior cornerback Bryce Hall. So, as opponents try to avoid playing to Hall’s side, this puts pressure on the other cornerbacks — senior Tim Harris and sophomore Darius Bratton — to step up and withstand the increased attacks. In his press conference Oct. 15, Coach Bronco Mendenhall said, in regards to the cornerbacks, that "any place that there is vulnerability, man, we are targeting it hopefully before our opponent. He also said that “Tim [Harris], after a slow start this season, continues through practice habits to establish and reestablish a role on this team that will help us.” Harris currently has eight solo tackles, eight assisted tackles and two broken up passes on the season. If he can continue to establish his role on the team in a way that helps Virginia tighten up any areas of imbalance or weakness, then the Cavaliers should have a defense that will be incredibly difficult for the Tar Heels to break.

Virginia running back PK Kier

Sophomore PK Kier put in a solid shift at running back in the second half against Duke Saturday after senior running back Jordan Ellis went down, and may be asked to do the same — or at least have an increased workload — against North Carolina. Kier picked up 36 yards on 12 carries, but his numbers don’t show everything. Kier showed his explosiveness immediately upon entering the game with a 13-yard first down run. He was critical in the drive that put the Cavaliers up 17-7 and in icing the game in the fourth quarter. “PK is Jordan Ellis just kind of in a different body,” Mendenhall said. “He runs for power. He runs for first downs and he's tough and durable.” Regardless of whether or not Kier is the starting running back against North Carolina or serving as understudy, the Cavaliers have something to be excited about for the future.

Keys to the game:

Stop North Carolina’s running game 

Though the Tar Heels have struggled so far this year, in their lone win this season and in their last two contests — where they just came short against Virginia Tech and Syracuse — their running game has been somewhat of a bright spot. In each of those contests, either Antonio Williams or Michael Carter rushed for over 100 yards. Whereas in some of their biggest losses of the season, such as a 41-19 loss to ECU and a 47-10 loss to Miami, neither Williams nor Carter rushed for over 100 yards. So, if the Cavaliers can contain the two tailbacks, they should be able to significantly keep North Carolina’s offense in check. 

Win the battle in the trenches

Virginia’s offensive and defensive lines have improved tremendously since the start of the year, but are still a crucial key to victory — the Cavaliers can count on, for the most part, solid play from junior transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins, receivers like senior Olamide Zaccheaus and junior Hasise Dubois, its secondary, and its linebacking core. However, its play in the trenches has been inconsistent — although recently, it has been excellent and is one of the reasons why Virginia is doing so well in ACC play. The offensive line’s play was the reason the Cavaliers were able to maintain leads against Miami and Duke, working late into the game to provide key blocks for Perkins, Ellis and Kier to allow them to come up with first downs. The defensive line has also been better, and must be strong against North Carolina to create a pass rush and stop the run game. Mendenhall noted in Monday’s press conference specifically how junior Eli Hanback and sophomore Mandy Alonso have been playing essentially every snap. Their tenacity and endurance has been critical in getting to the quarterback and stopping the run game, in addition to the likes of freshman Jordan Redmond — who was noted in last week’s breakdown before the Duke game.

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