Friday, October 24, 2014

game preview: North Carolina


Date/Time: Saturday, October 25; 12:30

TV: ESPN3, ACC Net.

Record against the Heels: 54-60-4

Last meeting: UNC 45, UVA 14; 11/9/13, Chapel Hill

Last weekend: Duke 20, UVA 13; UNC 48, GT 43

Line: UVA by 7

Injury report:

Virginia:

OUT: C Jackson Matteo, CB Demetrious Nicholson, OG Eric Tetlow, OT Jay Whitmire
DOUBTFUL: None
QUESTIONABLE: OG Ryan Doull
PROBABLE: None

North Carolina:

OUT: RB Conner Gonet
DOUBTFUL: RB Elijah Hood
QUESTIONABLE: OT R.J. Prince
PROBABLE: OT Kiaro Holts, WR Kendrick Singleton, DT Tyler Powell

This hasn't been a real competitive rivalry lately.  UNC's margins of victory the past four years: 34, 11, 24, 31.  It put an abrupt end to the long winning streak the Hoos had over the Heels in Scott Stadium.  UNC is reeling a bit at the moment, though.  Nobody's too sure what's a bigger scandal: the fact that an office staffer artificially pumped up the grades of thousands of UNC students over 18 years, or the Carolina defense.  One is a horrible affront to everything people expect out of an elite university, and the other made Debby Crowder a household name.

-- UVA run offense vs. UNC run defense

Top backs:
Kevin Parks: 120 carries, 502 yards, 4.2 avg., 3 TDs
Khalek Shepherd: 46 carries, 212 yards, 4.6 avg., 1 TD

UVA offense:
171.7 yards/game, 4.26 yards/attempt
69th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
218.0 yards/game, 4.81 yards/attempt
99th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Stop me if you've heard this story before: Bad teams able to run on supposedly ACC-level defense.  This is not quite as much so as Duke; for one thing, UNC has played teams with a pulse, and not everyone has run buck-wild, either.  On the other hand, UNC can't be said to have shut anyone down, either, not even Liberty.  Only Clemson really had trouble running the ball, but Clemson doesn't actually have a good run game.

Neither does VT - as has been on display the past couple Thursdays - but they were at least functional against UNC.  East Carolina, of course, went apeshit.  And the Carolina defense has been rather prone to allowing long rushing plays by wide receivers; Cam Phillips of VT had a 30-yarder and GT's DeAndre Smelter went for 75.  At some point UVA will probably try an end-around with Darius Jennings.  If it's run to the wide side of the field and not stupidly at the near sideline, it has a chance of going for big yards.

If Ryan Doull is able to return, it should also provide a boost.  Doull isn't amazing, but he's an improvement over Cody Wallace.  And of course, the other big If is whether or not Steve Fairchild actually has the guts to stick with the running game.  UNC's problem here is that they run a nickel defense without an especially stout front six.  The front four is pretty average, and the two starting linebackers - Jeff Schoettmer and Travis Hughes - aren't very productive.  Hughes, who you'll remember as a guy hotly pursued by UVA out of the 757, is only on pace for 65 tackles, a low number for a starting linebacker.

As with Duke, attacking the middle ought to provide more dividends than trying to tiptoe around the edges; un-enamored as I am of our ability to move a line, you'd rather not give a nickel defense time to pursue to the play.  UNC's safeties aren't as strong as Duke's - there's no Jeremy Cash running around - but this still really is one of those games where coachspeak about committing to the run should actually pay off.

-- UVA pass offense vs. UNC pass defense

Quarterbacks:
Matt Johns: 82/147, 55.8%; 1,012 yards, 8 TDs, 5 INTs; 6.88 avg.
Greyson Lambert: 63/97, 64.9%; 564 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs; 5.81 avg.

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 24 rec., 118 yards, 0 TDs
Miles Gooch: 23 rec., 349 yards, 1 TD
Canaan Severin: 23 rec., 266 yards, 2 TDs

UVA offense:
235.6 yards/game, 6.54 yards/attempt
90th of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
304.7 yards/game, 8.71 yards/attempt
121st of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Last week was a mixed-messages party.  Mike London declared that "nobody loses their starting job because they're injured," didn't put Greyson Lambert on the injury list, and didn't start him - and then didn't even play him, despite assurances to the contrary, because a quarterback who completed less than half his passes was in too much of a rhythm.

So I really hope it's just that London thinks he's being clever by continuing to refuse to name an actual starter, but I have my doubts.  Matt Johns didn't play horribly last week, but that impression comes about only because the passes he did complete went for big yardage.  (And because it was still better than almost every David Watford performance.)

This area is where UNC diverges heavily from Duke, however.  Duke had a respectable pass defense.  UNC hasn't been able to stop anyone.  OK, Clemson's Deshaun Watson has turned out to be a pretty good quarterback.  But Quinn Kaehler?  San Diego State is just slightly inside the top-100 in passing efficiency and the Aztec QB Kaehler threw for 341 yards.  Carolina doesn't bring an aggressive pass rush, and probably has only one player who elicits much concern in offensive coordinators: cornerback Brian Walker, who's picked off three passes and returned them all a long way.

Given a choice, I'd prefer to see Lambert play most, if not all, of the game.  Against a pass defense like this one, incomplete passes are a waste of time, and you'd rather not give UNC's offense much of a chance to get on the field.  The worst thing you can do is a three-and-out drive that takes a minute off the clock.  If Michael Brewer can complete two-thirds of his passes and lead VT to 34 points, surely the Hoos can figure this out too.

-- UNC run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Marquise Williams: 91 carries, 448 yards, 4.9 avg, 4 TDs
T.J. Logan: 47 carries, 213 yards, 4.5 avg., 1 TD

UNC offense:
152.3 yards/game, 4.07 yards/attempt
80th of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
100.6 yards/game, 3.03 yards/attempt
11th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

It looks like UNC won't have running back Elijah Hood for Saturday; Hood leads Carolina's RBs in carries, but Romar Morris has been just as productive, and T.J. Logan's been better.  News has been better for UNC on the offensive line, though; the right side consists of Landon Turner and Jon Heck, both of whom missed time with injuries earlier in the year, and both of whom got back on the field in the past couple weeks.  Not coincidentally, UNC ran for about 190 yards in both the ND and GT games.

The primary ballcarrier, though, is quarterback Marquise Williams, because UNC runs a great deal of read-option.  In the basic-est of read-option plays, a right-handed quarterback like Williams runs to the left while the RB heads right, so strong days from Logan and Morris with a fully healthy right side of the line were no surprise.

Williams is a strong runner; he's a fairly big guy, linebacker-sized but elusive.  Quin Blanding learned a lesson about college quarterbacks when UCLA's Brett Hundley ran him over in front of the goal line; this is the time to apply it.  Blanding's got a tough job in the read-option.  He has to watch the handoff and head where the ball is, while ensuring that there isn't a receiver streaking downfield.  The read-option creates a numerical mismatch in favor of the offense, so quality safety play - i.e., bringing reinforcements - is one way to nullify that.  Traditionally the read-option is defended with a "scrape exchange" which lures the QB into keeping and then running smack into a linebacker.  In this case that will be Daquan Romero, another very important player for this matchup.

The third way to beat the read-option?  Simply blow it up at the line.  One of its goals is to get multiple blockers onto the second level, which is hard to do if Jon Tenuta has dialed up the right blitz.  Anyway, the run game in Fedora's offense is a clear second fiddle.  UVA is strong against the run for a reason, and should have success regardless, but this isn't the main matchup.

-- UNC pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Quarterback:
Marquise Williams: 156/242, 64.5%; 1,776 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs; 7.34 avg.

Top receivers:
Ryan Switzer: 34 rec., 429 yards, 3 TDs
Mack Hollins: 24 rec., 435 yards, 5 TDs
Bug Howard: 23 rec., 197 yards, 2 TDs

UNC offense:
300.0 yards/game, 7.14 yards/attempt
62nd of 128, 5th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
230.7 yards/game, 6.48 yards/attempt
35th of 128 (national), 7th of 14 (ACC)

This didn't go well last week.  Zero sacks, zero turnovers.  Under those circumstances, holding Duke to 20 points is pretty decent, but it's four scoring drives.  UNC has only allowed 11 sacks in 7 games thanks to a solid O-line in protection and quick-hitting passes, and Williams has only thrown six picks as well.  And with a faster-paced offense, four scoring drives could turn into six.

Coverage will simply have to be excellent, and a little more pressure on Williams would help.  He's elusive, has a strong arm, and can extend a play with his feet and then fit the ball into a small spot.  And the Heels spread it around a lot.  Quite a few plays go to the running backs, but four different receivers all have 20+ catches this year.  Ryan Switzer in particular is speedy and dangerous in the open field, and the Heels like to set him up in the slot with blockers and space.

UNC also likes to be tricky; receivers Switzer and Quinshad Davis have each thrown a touchdown (one of which was to Williams) as well as punter Tommy Hibbard.  When you run as many plays as UNC does (they're one of the fastest teams in the country at just under 80 plays a game) the bag of tricks has to be large.

UVA needs to score points, yes, but the game is likely to be won or lost here.  Pretty much nobody's been able to stop the UNC passing attack, except for VT.  UVA can't likely win a shootout, so the Hoos need to drag the point total down to a more workable level.  Cut down on UNC's big plays and limit their passing attack, and it's possible; if UNC is able to put up 40-plus points again, UVA probably won't be able to overcome that.

-- Favorability ratings

UVA run offense: 5.5
UVA pass offense: 6.5
UVA run defense: 6
UVA pass defense: 2.5

Average: 5.125

-- Outlook

This is a very, very big game.  I don't usually go in for speculation about "is this Mike London's most important game???" but this is about that important.  With Miami and FSU both yet to be played (and let's face it, Miami is a good team and the likely favorite for the division title) 4-4 is no place to be if you want to get bowl eligible.  That most likely requires beating both Georgia Tech and VT to get there.

Well, GT is basically Carolina with a funkier offense.  No defense at all, but capable of winning a shootout.  Can't beat UNC?  Then probably would have trouble with GT.  And VT, despite the fact that their 24/7 board boasts no fewer than 22 different "fire the coaches" threads from just the Miami game alone, undoubtedly has something up their sleeve the same way they surprised Ohio State.

So this is the crossroads.  Win this one, and finding one more - just one more, even two - should be doable, and confidence will be renewed.  Lose and....well, we don't even know if 6-6 would save London's job, let alone something worse.

-- Predictions

- Greyson Lambert starts.

- The UVA passing game generates over 300 yards.

- UVA passes more than they run.

- UNC also passes for more than 300 yards.

- Zero sacks again for UVA, but not zero turnovers.

- UNC averages fewer than 4 yards a carry.

Final score: UVA 31, UNC 28

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, NC State

-- Miami 30, Virginia Tech 6 - Thu. - Overheard from the broadcasters:

"Can you imagine [the VT] offense against [the UVA] defense??"
"..."
"........."
"I don't think I want to."

"The Coastal is so wide-open; you can't count out any team in the race."
"Well, except for Virginia Tech."

-- Boston College @ Wake Forest - 3:30 - It's rare that a team is as much of a running powerhouse as BC without employing some Paul Johnsonish throwback kind of offense, but BC pulls it off.

-- Georgia Tech @ Pittsburgh - 3:30 - Five teams in the Coastal are either 2-1 or 2-2, including these two.  This week should help clarify things a little.  For GT's side of things, they started hot but it's not inconceivable (though also not real likely) that they could finish outside the bowl picture, even though they only need one more win.

-- Syracuse @ Clemson - 7:00 - Clemson should add themselves to the ACC's bowl rolls this week.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope KP just makes up his mind to single-handedly carry the team to victory like he did vs. Pitt. Could be a special game for him, especially given the chip he has on his shoulder about Carolina teams. Steve Fairchild, please, please just give Parks the damn ball. Thank you.

Go Hoos!

Anonymous said...

And just when you thought we couldn't come up with a brand new way to lose a game due to sheer incompetence, we pull out the 12-men-on-the-field-after-a-timeout-on-4th-down!

I will give it to London: He has found some amazing ways to piss away wins.