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Virginia football set to face No. 21 North Carolina in the South’s Oldest Rivalry

The Cavaliers will face their stiffest competition of the season in their first ACC matchup

<p>The Cavaliers seek their first road win since beating the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 2019.</p>

The Cavaliers seek their first road win since beating the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 2019.

With two wins by a combined score of 85-14, it’s safe to say that Virginia football has gotten off to an excellent start to its 2021 campaign. Led by possibly the nation’s most underrated thrower in junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, the Cavaliers (2-0, 0-0 ACC) will travel to Chapel Hill, N.C. to play No. 21 North Carolina, their most difficult opponent to date.

Virginia currently owns a four-game win streak over the Tar Heels (1-1, 0-1 ACC) — including a combined 11-game win streak in football and basketball — and has simply had its way with North Carolina despite the Cavaliers being the underdogs in their last two meetings. Virginia will likely enter this matchup as heavy betting underdogs once again, but the Cavaliers certainly have the confidence and experience to extend their win streak to five games in the South’s Oldest Rivalry.

Key players

North Carolina junior quarterback Sam Howell

The preseason Heisman Trophy candidate has been a mixed bag through two games this season. In the Tar Heels’ season-opening disappointment against Virginia Tech, Howell completed just over 50 percent of his passes while throwing for only one touchdown to go with three interceptions. Unsurprisingly, North Carolina’s offense sputtered, scoring only 10 points and not entering the score column until late in the third quarter.

However, against Georgia State — an admittedly much weaker opponent than the Hokies — Howell lived up to the preseason hype, tossing for over 350 yards and three touchdowns on only 29 attempts. The Tar Heels put up 59 points in a rout of their opponent.

It is clear that North Carolina’s level of play is largely in sync with Howell’s performance, and his talent will prove to be an excellent test for Virginia’s seemingly improved secondary play. Despite both games being losses for North Carolina, Howell shredded the Cavaliers’ defense in their two meetings, throwing for nearly 800 combined yards and eight touchdowns. It is hard to envision Virginia will escape a third consecutive matchup with the Tar Heels if Howell is able to gash the Cavaliers’ secondary as he has done in the past.

Virginia sophomore kicker Justin Duenkel

While keeping a close eye on a kicker is rarely a high priority for fans, Duenkel will almost certainly play a major role in Saturday’s contest. After a strong place kicking debut against William & Mary, hitting two field goals from 39 and 25 yards, Duenkel faltered against Illinois, missing his two attempts from 46 and 31 yards. While the misses did not have an impact on the final result, it was certainly cause for concern for Virginia fans.

Duenkel has otherwise been solid, nailing all 11 of his extra point attempts and sending 11 of his 15 kickoffs to the endzone for touchbacks. However, a kicker’s most difficult and important job is to consistently hit field goals, and in a game that could be decided by only a few points, it will be crucial that Duenkel makes the most of his opportunities. Part of being a top-level kicker is the ability to leave the past behind, so expect Duenkel to be unphased by his performance Saturday and confident heading into the matchup against North Carolina. 

Keys to the game

Win the time of possession battle

Keeping the Tar Heels’ offense off the field will be crucial to a Cavalier victory. In Virginia Tech’s win over North Carolina, the Hokies dominated possession, holding on to the ball for nearly 10 minutes more than the Tar Heels. In Virginia’s last two wins over North Carolina, the Cavaliers won the time of possession battle by over seven minutes in each meeting.

Possessing the ball will keep the defense rested and fresh, vital to limiting explosive plays from Howell and the Tar Heel offense. Howell has impressive arm strength, and despite a solid start to the season, Virginia’s defense has struggled against the long ball in recent seasons and a tired defense will be especially susceptible to deep passes. Furthermore, controlling the ball will indicate that the Cavaliers have established a run presence which will be important to opening up a North Carolina defense that will likely be keyed in on stopping Armstrong.

Manage the crowd

Believe it or not, Virginia’s last road contest against a full-capacity crowd was 2019’s win over the Tar Heels. That game also marked the Cavaliers’ last win on the road at all — losing all four of their opportunities in 2020. Even then, it took a heroic effort from former quarterback Bryce Perkins in the form of a single-game Virginia record 490 total yards to overcome North Carolina and capture the away victory.

A win against the Tar Heels would also be the Cavaliers’ first road win against a ranked opponent since 2011. Simply put, Virginia has struggled away from Scott Stadium in recent years. In order to find success this weekend, the Cavaliers will need to lean on an experienced roster to deal with a likely riled up crowd under the Saturday night lights. Controlling time of possession will be essential to managing the crowd and not letting it have too much of an impact on the game.

Kickoff against the Tar Heels is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and the game will be televised on ACC Network.


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