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Countdown to Kickoff: Virginia Tech
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina welcomes Coastal Division preseason favorite Virginia Tech to Kenan Stadium on Saturday for a critical matchup as both programs attempt to stay about .500 in the win-loss column.
The Tar Heels (3-2) are favored by 5.5 points over Virginia Tech (3-2), a line that jumped from a 2.0-point opening earlier in the week. North Carolina is 7-3 as a home favorite over its past 10 games at Kenan.
History, however, suggests that UNC will have its hands full. Virginia Tech owns an 18-10-6 overall record in the series, including a 7-1 mark in ACC games. The Hokies are 13-0 in the state of North Carolina since joining the league in 2004.
Since dropping back-to-back road games to Wake Forest and Louisville, UNC has outscored its last two opponents (East Carolina and Idaho) by a margin of 93-6. The Tar Heels are gradually adjusting to head coach Larry Fedora’s new schemes and approach and building confidence with each passing week.
“Every time you have success, you’re going to feel a little bit more confident,” Fedora said. “The key is understanding there’s going to be adversity. Whether you’re confident or not, when you have real confidence, you understand there’s going to be adversity and it doesn’t affect your confidence. You just don’t worry about it; you play on. You play the next play.”
The Tar Heel defense, which ranks 16th nationally in total defense (296.0 ypg), hasn’t allowed a touchdown in 10 consecutive quarters, but Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas (78-fo-148 passing, 1,093 yards, 8 TD, 6 INT) presents a sizable challenge with his 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame.
“He’s a dual-threat quarterback; he can pass it or run it,” UNC middle linebacker Kevin Reddick said. “You’ve got to be honest and play disciplined football. If you’ve got the quarterback, you’ve got the quarterback and if you’ve got the run, you’ve got the run. We all have to be disciplined on our assignments and make sure we’re all on our right keys and reading the right keys.”
The Hokies have struggled offensively despite Thomas’s abilities, mainly due to four new starting offensive linemen and a running back stable currently devoid of names like Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and David Wilson. Virginia Tech ranks 85th in total offense (373.4 ypg) and 77th in rushing offense (149.6 ypg).
Even so, North Carolina’s coaching staff knows what to expect from the longtime Coastal Division stalwart.
“They’ve always been able to run the football and they’ve been physical upfront,” defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. “They’re such a good play-action team. They do a lot of shifts and motions, so they can get you. It’s not like people are stuffing them now. They’ve had some issues with turnovers – they’ve gotten into the red zone a couple of times and had turnovers in a couple of games. So they’re moving it up and down the field, it’s just that they haven’t scored as many points as they have in the past yet.”
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Bryn Renner (104-of-163 passing, 1,422 yards, 14 TD, 4 INT) looks to continue his strong play as he acclimates to UNC’s fast-paced, no huddle spread offense. The red-shirt junior is 20th nationally in passing efficiency with a 160.52 rating.
“I feel like [Renner’s] starting to get in a groove,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “He’s obviously performed well. He’s still learning every week. We got to try to eliminate the big mistakes, but I do feel like he’s starting to get a grip of what we’re doing. I know with the questions and answers between us, I’m starting to realize he’s starting to see the right things. Now it’s just getting enough reps at it to be really good at it and that takes time.”
Sophomore running back Gio Bernard (29 rushes, 213 yards, 4 TD) and emerging rookie wide receiver Quinshad Davis (15 catches, 210 yards, 2 TD) compliment Renner at the skill positions. Fedora’s spread, while still in the introductory phase, has been successful nonetheless. UNC ranks 12th nationally in scoring offense (43.2 ppg) and 32nd in total offense (477.4 ypg).
“I’m really impressed with North Carolina,” Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. “They’ve got veterans up front on the offensive line. The tight ends are excellent. The quarterback, Renner, is completing 64 percent of the passes. Their tailbacks are really good. Bernard is back now, full tilt. Then big, tall wide receivers that can go get it.
“They do a good job at offense, stretch you horizontally, vertically, make you defend the field. [They are] a great screen team.”
Fedora’s spread look will be tested by Virginia Tech defensive mastermind Bud Foster, whose defense is giving up just 17.2 points per game (26th nationally).
“They’ve been really good forever it seems like and they play hard and they play violently,” Anderson said. “They get there and they’re angry when they get there. They just seem to always have guys make big plays at the right time. I know they’re getting a lot of grief about a couple of plays Saturday, but those guys, every time I turn it on, are playing hair on fire, guys flying around and I know they’re going to come in here ready to go.”
Beamer made his mark in Blacksburg with an aggressive approach on special teams and defense, resulting in 131 non-offensive touchdowns and 129 blocked kicks since 1987. Fedora acknowledged looking to Beamer for guidance earlier in his coaching career, and that decision paid dividends last season as Southern Miss scored 21 non-offensive touchdowns.
Both teams have scored touchdowns on punt returns this season, while UNC holds a 3-1 edge in blocked punts. Regardless, special teams will play a vital role on Saturday.
A victory over Virginia Tech would mark UNC’s first home win in the series since 1938. The Tar Heels are 9-1 in their last 10 at home.