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Virginia football to take on North Carolina in the South’s Oldest Rivalry

The Cavaliers will look to do the improbable against a surging Tar Heel team and get back on track after a crushing loss to Miami.

<p>The Cavalier defense will face a tall task Saturday when it takes on the potent North Carolina offense.</p>

The Cavalier defense will face a tall task Saturday when it takes on the potent North Carolina offense.

With the football season now in its late stages, it is becoming clear that the Cavaliers should focus primarily on bowl eligibility and on a win against Virginia Tech. A loss to Miami has dug Virginia (3-5, 1-4 ACC) into a hole with only one victory in the ACC, yet perhaps Coach Tony Elliott’s team can catch a spark with No. 17 North Carolina coming to town.

Thanks to the last two triumphs over the Tar Heels (7-1, 4-0 ACC) at Scott Stadium, history suggests that the Cavaliers stand a chance at home. A noon kickoff certainly doesn’t help the case for a strong home advantage, but the South’s Oldest Rivalry has often been a landscape for unforeseen upsets

Coming off of an impressive win over Pittsburgh, North Carolina has exceeded expectations on the shoulders of its star quarterback, sophomore Drake Maye. A potent offense — arguably the best in the ACC — has propelled the Tar Heels into the national spotlight. However, the Tar Heels have not played any ranked teams and the team tallied its first loss against an underwhelming Notre Dame team. This will be a tall test for Virginia, but it is not out of the question to forecast a competitive game Saturday. 

Storylines

Virginia must crack the code in the red-zone

If we learned anything from the Miami game, it was that Virginia possesses an alarming offensive pitfall. The culprit? Converting in the red-zone. The Old Dominion matchup earlier in the season exposed a trend of turnovers occurring near the goal-line, and the Miami contest only confirmed the fears of Cavalier fans — but without the turnovers, surprisingly enough. The offensive unit — having reached at least the five-yard line three times Saturday — failed to convert a single touchdown in the loss.

Misfortune has befallen Virginia to some capacity, yet play-calling may be something to monitor if the Cavaliers want to succeed in the red-zone. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a good idea to avoid the end-arounds on first and goals from the three-yard line. With a capable runner in senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong and the three tailbacks who have all seen time this year, offensive coordinator Des Kitchings must implement basic, run-heavy schemes in the red-zone to curb the turnovers and offensive inefficiency. 

The Tar Heels continue to find ways to win

The 7-1, 4-0 ACC record that North Carolina holds may be somewhat illusory. If one scratches beneath the surface, the season will show that the Tar Heels have won only three games by more than one possession. An early scare from in-state opponent Appalachian State slowed the Tar Heels’ momentum in the eyes of the national media, yet Coach Mack Brown’s team has closed when it mattered most — even if it wasn’t pretty. Last week against Pittsburgh, Maye helped orchestrate a 28-point offensive explosion after North Carolina fell behind 24-14 in the third quarter. 

Despite highly-contested wins against the likes of Georgia State and Appalachian State, Brown has seemingly found his groove as the Tar Heels have cemented themselves in the top-25. Moreover, the Tar Heels have tallied at least 27 points in all of their games in 2022 — compared to only one for the Cavaliers. An unrelenting offense has given North Carolina that extra edge in close games, while Virginia has often failed to score in critical scenarios. 

Players to watch

Virginia senior linebacker Nick Jackson

The heart and soul of this improved defense, Jackson has been a mainstay in the middle of the field — having recently gained ACC Linebacker of the Week honors after posting 14 total tackles and one pass defended against Miami. Despite missing the first three games of the season due to injury, the senior linebacker has set the tone for a team that is garnering a defensive identity. What separates Jackson is his ability to get to the quarterback, as his two-sack performance against Georgia Tech indicates. 

The Cavaliers will desperately need Jackson’s services against one of the most offensive-friendly teams in America. The defense as a whole will have to stymie North Carolina’s sixth-ranked scoring offense — measured by its 41.8 points per game — and Jackson may play the biggest role of all by keeping Maye honest. To win over the Tar Heels requires shutting down their quarterback’s rushing ability, and thus the responsibility will likely fall to Jackson. 

North Carolina sophomore quarterback Drake Maye

Maye is — unfortunately for Virginia — the real deal. The heir apparent to the Tar Heels’ all-time leading passer in Sam Howell, Maye has filled the shoes of his predecessor and then some. With eight games under his belt, Maye currently leads the ACC in passing yards and touchdowns and is third in rushing yards by a quarterback. 

In short, Maye is the undisputed catalyst for a team that was not predicted to land in the top-25 before the season. His ability to dissect defenses both on the ground and through the air makes him so dangerous. In fact, he has led the Tar Heels in rushing in four of the team’s eight games. The Cavaliers have not seen a quarterback close to Maye’s skill level and will have to pull out all the stops to limit his production.

Kickoff is scheduled for noon Saturday, and the game will be televised on ACC Network.

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