Following a heartbreaking 19-14 loss to No. 12 Miami Saturday, Virginia football returns to Charlottesville on a four-game skid — it’s longest losing streak since the 2017 season — and welcomes a top-15 opponent in No. 15 North Carolina Halloween night. The Cavaliers (1-4, 1-4 ACC) have spooked the Tar Heels (4-1, 4-1 ACC) in years past, holding a three-game winning streak in the South’s Oldest Rivalry. However, this year’s matchup features a struggling Virginia team against a surging North Carolina squad with sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, who was the 2019 ACC Freshman of the Year, and Chazz Surratt, 2019 first-team All-ACC and graduate linebacker.
After a 2019 season that saw a young Tar Heels squad secure North Carolina’s first bowl game win since 2013, Coach Mack Brown has used strong regional recruiting to build an up-and-coming powerhouse in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels reached No. 5 in the AP Poll this season for the first time since 1997, and while North Carolina was subsequently upset by Florida State, it handily defeated in-state rival NC State Saturday to get back in the win column.
Last year, when the two teams faced off, it featured a confident Cavalier squad visiting a Tar Heel Team still trying to find its identity. This year, Virginia has looked unconfident and lackadaisical, but showed flashes of strength against Miami that have given fans hope that something can be salvaged from a difficult 2020 season. North Carolina, on the other hand, will stroll into Charlottesville with immense confidence and a clear talent advantage. If Virginia wants to have a shot at dethroning their southern neighbor, the Cavaliers will have to play an outstanding game on both sides of the ball.
Players to watch:
Virginia senior wide receiver Terrell Jana
After a strong 2019 campaign that saw Jana emerge as a leader out wide for the Cavaliers, the Woodberry Forest product has been quiet in Virginia’s last two games, hauling in just seven passes for 108 yards. A disciplined route-runner — especially on the slant — Jana is most effective as a quick first read, particularly early in the game to help sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong get into a rhythm. Jana will most likely be lining up against North Carolina fan-favorite sophomore cornerback Storm Duck, who will certainly make life difficult. Jana must use his football IQ and sharp cuts to make up for what he lacks in speed and help him get open early and often and to catalyze a sometimes anemic Cavalier offense.
North Carolina running backs junior Javonte Williams and senior Michael Carter
While Howell has torched opponents in the air, Williams and Carter have put together one of the most impressive seasons for an ACC two-back backfield in recent history. The duo have combined for 1,146 yards and 13 touchdowns in just five games, with Carter providing speed and elusiveness and Williams bringing hard-nosed running to the table. Against Wake Forest, Virginia struggled with the two-back system, allowing 174 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, and given the Tar Heels’ advantage in talent over the Demon Deacons, it’s safe to say that the Cavalier front seven will have their hands full with Williams and Carter. If Carter can break off on big runs early and Williams can end drives with tough running in the red zone, North Carolina will have a clear path to run up the score. However, if Virginia repeats their strong defensive effort from last week’s narrow loss — where it allowed just 2.5 yards per carry — the Cavaliers will have a shot at taking down Carter, Williams and the surging Tar Heels.
Keys to the game:
Keep pace with North Carolina’s offense
While Virginia was able to tame Miami’s dynamic offense last weekend, the Tar Heels are at another level of offensive prowess, featuring a bonafide NFL prospect in Howell, two running backs with a diverse set of skills in Carter and Williams and reliable wide receivers in junior Dyami Brown and senior Dazz Newsome. As such, the game will be dictated not by the Cavaliers’ ability to halt the North Carolina offense, but rather Virginia's ability to keep up. The story of the Virginia offense this season has been its slow starts, but the Cavaliers showed an improved ability to start quick against Miami, scoring a touchdown on their first drive. In particular, rotating Armstrong with junior quarterback Keytaon Thompson and freshman quarterback Ira Armstead early is crucial in getting the offense firing on all six cylinders. If the Cavaliers’ quarterback trio gets in rhythm at the start, Virginia can stay tit-for-tat with North Carolina all evening.
Limit missed tackles
One of the reasons for the Cavaliers’ defensive woes is their struggles to wrap opponents up. Carter and Williams are known for their ability to make defenders miss due to their speed and strength, respectively, and are sure to give the Virginia defense issues. To bring opponents down, the Cavaliers will have to stay disciplined and wrap them up rather than look for big hits. Furthermore, while Howell is shorter for a quarterback at 6-foot-1, he packs a punch at 225 lbs. The Indian Trail, N.C. native has proven to be tough to take down, even for the most athletic defensive lineman, demonstrating an ability to escape the pocket when under duress and look for a big play downfield. Overall, to put a dent in North Carolina’s offensive production, the Virginia defense will have to stay strong in the open field and make tackles the first time around.
Kick-off at Scott Stadium is slated for 8 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.