The Cavaliers (1-5, 0-2 ACC) have dealt with constant mental errors and growing pains in 2023, as proven through multiple second-half collapses — but some losses have been partially due to simply facing a superior opponent, like currently ranked No. 17 Tennessee. That was supposed to be the most difficult game of Virginia’s season. A road date with the No. 10 ranked Tar Heels (6-0, 3-0 ACC) is now even more arduous. The Cavaliers gave North Carolina a serious fight in a 28-31 home loss in 2022, but the Tar Heels are now even more formidable with a diversified offensive attack. The Cavalier Daily spoke with Noah Monroe of the Daily Tar Heel to preview the Saturday night matchup.
Virginia’s offensive line versus North Carolina’s defensive line
As said throughout the season, the Cavalier offensive front has been dismal. Offensive line coach Terry Heffernan has not been able to find his best five linemen to protect the quarterback. The Cavaliers have seen detestable play at right guard and right tackle, mainly due to the unforeseen significant regression of junior offensive lineman Ty Furnish via surrendered sacks and penalties, along with the pass-blocking struggles of senior offensive lineman Ugonna Nnnanna.
Whatever issues Heffernan’s group may have, senior quarterback Tony Muskett deserves better protection. He has been sacked four or more times in every game he has played, all the while battling through a painful injury to his left shoulder. Against senior linebacker Kaimon Rucker with his six and a half sacks, mediocre offensive line play is simply not an option.
“[North Carolina] sacked [South Carolina senior quarterback] Spencer Rattler nine times which meant that the Gamecocks couldn’t get their offense going,” Monroe said. “If Virginia’s offensive line can keep the defensive line out of the backfield, that will give Virginia the time they need to make a play.”
Virginia senior quarterback Tony Muskett versus North Carolina’s pass defense
Muskett has thrown an interception in back-to-back games and has not scored more than three touchdowns in any game. Virginia frequently relies on running backs, but it will need to pass the football against a top-10 team in the country. For help, Muskett has graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington and junior wide receiver Malachi Fields, who are taking college football by storm as the best receiving duo in the ACC. While aiming to keep up in what could turn into a high-scoring affair, Muskett must watch out for the whopping seven Tar Heel defenders that already have an interception on the year. In particular, junior defensive back Alijah Huzzie already has three interceptions in just six games.
Muskett and his ability to lead a complimentary offense will be crucial. While North Carolina has won almost every game by double digits, their one close call was a double overtime 40-34 win over Appalachian State. In the game, Mountaineer junior quarterback Joey Aguilar consistently targeted his top receiving option while also feeding junior running back Nate Noel to the tune of 26 carries for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Muskett will need to lead lengthy scoring drives by utilizing his wideouts and deep running back room to keep the Tar Heel offense off the field.
Keys to victory
Stop North Carolina sophomore quarterback Drake Maye
“If you can stop Maye, the Virginia offense will be given a chance to keep up with the prolific North Carolina offense, which will give them a chance to get the upset,” Monroe said.
Hindering the quarterback is always a top priority on defense. The Cavaliers did an outstanding job at ruining the day for junior William & Mary quarterback Darius Wilson, who was held to just 146 total yards and no touchdowns. With due credit to a good Tribe team, Maye is simply better. He is one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football, as evidenced through his 2022 statline of 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns. Virginia’s defensive effort in its first win of 2023 was admirable, but it will need to continue building on the win and even doubling its statistical success to take down the Tar Heels.
Stop the running game on defense
Maye’s former favorite target — current Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Josh Downs — left for the pros last spring, but the North Carolina offense continues to score with ease. According to Monroe, the biggest reason for success has been the run game.
“[Sophomore running back] Omarion Hampton has been the lead back, with [graduate student running back] British Brooks getting some runs as well,” Monroe said. “The increased production from running backs has forced defenses to not just account for Drake Maye, but to also have to account for Hampton.”
Hampton currently has 658 yards and eight touchdowns in 2023, and is the engine of North Carolina’s offense. If defensive coordinator John Rudzinski’s crew can neutralize the opposing running backs, this game could end up being a reenactment of last year’s close contest. Doing so may prove difficult, as the Cavalier defense has allowed a disappointing 6.8 yards per carry to its opponents’ leading rusher. Essentially, opponents can run the ball at will against Virginia and pick up easy first downs.
“Play to win the game”
In the words of former New York Jets Coach Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game.” Virginia Coach Tony Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings have drawn criticism for ultra-conservative play calling and a lack of deep passes for the offense, specifically now that Muskett is back in action and dynamic freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea has returned to the bench. Against No. 17 Tennessee, Muskett only attempted 17 passes, but seven players got multiple carries. Adaptability is a must, and long passing plays are more reliable scoring options. In their highest scoring output of 2023 against James Madison, Virginia threw the ball 43 percent of the time. With Colandrea at the helm, flea-flicker plays and passing attempts of 30-plus yards were common. Elliott needs to reinstate the courageous play calling for Muskett.
As nearly 24-point underdogs, the Cavaliers will need to be at their best. Looking for an unprecedented season-changing upset, they’ll kick off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on The CW.