Thursday, October 22, 2015

game preview: North Carolina

Date/Time: Saturday, October 24; 3:30


Record against the Heels: 54-61-4

Last meeting: UNC 28, UVA 27; 10/25/14, Charlottesville

Last weekend: UVA 44, SU 38; UNC 50, WF 14

Line: UNC by 17.5

One of college sports' greatest advantage over the pros is the total lack of tangible benefit to losing.  (No, the potential firing of a fireable coach doesn't count; it's all hypothetical ether til that day actually arrives.)  In that sense, despite the complete debauchery that is the recruiting process (especially at oh say Louisville) and the golden handshakes we all pretend don't exist, and all the tattoo scandals and fake degrees and free shoes and everything, despite all that, there's still at least one absolutely pure aspect to the college level of football: it ain't for nuthin' but braggin' rights.  Nobody's lamenting the loss of draft pick status when you win, nobody's encouraging the team to lose, there's no such thing as tanking.  That's why the Syracuse game was great stuff.  Come what may in the end, there's at least one school in the ACC who can't lord it over us for a year.

Which brings us to the South's Oldest Rivalry - and the five game losing streak in this particular game that we currently wear.  Prior to that, UVA had won four straight, seven of eight, and ten of twelve, and in fact was very close to completely leveling the all-time series.  Plus we had that fun little streak where we hadn't lost to them at home since 1981.  Nice.  Bragging rights.

The Hoos are very unlikely to go bowling this year and very unlikely to save their coach's job, but losing accomplishes nothing and is always worse than winning - particularly in a rivalry with a name.  UNC is on a completely opposite trajectory from UVA, proving there is no such thing as sports-god justice given the two schools' vastly differing attitudes on classroom work, so bragging rights here are likely to continue to slip further away, but at least a win would be an unadulterated joy.

-- UVA run offense vs. UNC run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 66 carries, 254 yards, 3.8 ypc, 2 TDs
Albert Reid: 37 carries, 163 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
112.17 yards/game, 3.35 yards/attempt
119th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
213.83 yards/game, 4.52 yards/attempt
82nd of 128 (national), 11th of 14 (ACC)

It's amazing what a functional running game can do.  Matt Johns played well against Syracuse, but I don't think the passing game was all it could've been given the shitshow that is Syracuse's pass defense.  With our usual running game, that would've been another loss.  Instead the ball actually moved on the ground.  UVA managed about four-and-a-quarter yards per carry without sacks, which is basically mediocre.  I'll take it, after what we've seen so far.  It moved them off the bottom of the conference, at least.

Of course, that's half because UNC shut down Wake Forest last week.  Kind of.  This was in large part because 1) UNC kept the pressure on Wake's non-scrambly quarterback, John Wolford, and 2) Wake's punter felt it necessary to receive a snap with his knee on the ground.  Slick.  Anyway, UNC.  Normally, midseason analyses of opposing run defenses begin with "have they played Georgia Tech yet?" and if they have, take any poor standing in the rankings with a grain of salt, and the earlier the game, the bigger the grain.

But UNC actually stopped GT pretty effectively.  Then again, Delaware, a team even more run-wacky than GT, racked up almost 300 yards.  Illinois, outside the top 100 in rushing effectiveness, also had their way.  Even North Carolina A&T had some success on the ground.

With a little consistency on the O-line, something that's been entirely lacking this year, the Hoos might actually find some room to run. (?)  UNC has an inexperienced defensive line and has found it tough to get any disruption from the front.  Linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad do pretty good work, but they also have to do most of it.  UVA will never run roughshod over anyone, but I'm comfortable saying this matchup won't be a disaster, either.

-- UVA pass offense vs. UNC pass defense

Matt Johns: 117/191, 61.3%; 1,432 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs; 7.5 ypa, 134.9 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 35 rec., 409 yards, 3 TDs
Canaan Severin: 30 rec., 418 yards, 3 TDs
Olamide Zacchaeus: 9 rec., 48 yards, 0 TDs

UVA offense:
244.3 yards/game, 7.3 yards/attempt
62nd of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
135.5 yards/game, 5.5 yards/attempt
10th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

You hear a lot about UNC's improved defense, and this is what they mean.  UNC was a wreck last year in pass defense, allowing 8.5 yards per attempt.  They've slashed three yards off of that, which is impressive.  Opposing quarterbacks are barely above 50/50 in completing their passes.

The linebackers are solid in pass coverage, and they pair up with a very solid secondary.  Carolina does a good job of limiting the YAC because their back seven or eight are sure tacklers.  Gene Chizik has taught them how to keep plays in front of them; UNC is tied for first in the country for fewest allowed pass plays above 20 yards with just 10.  That's a skewed stat when you've got two run-heavy teams on the schedule, but those teams also tend to produce big pass plays when they do bother trying.

The plus side is, Matt Johns should hopefully stay clean.  Junior Gnonkonde leads UNC's pass rush with two sacks - which is half the team total.  They both came against Wake Forest.  Even with a constantly shifting lineup, UVA has been respectable in pass protection, and Johns is good about not rooting himself to one spot.

Still, time to throw is one thing, but you have to find someone, and there's extra pressure on the playmakers this week - Mizzell and Severin, principally - to be the ones to create extra space and move the ball.  Johns is still being leashed to the pass-game-as-run-proxy strategy a little too much for my liking, and I expect guys like safety Donnie Miles to be in too many places at once, being as the pass game isn't big on subtle mental games.  I don't expect Johns to have a great day; the average per attempt could be as low as in the 4s.

-- UNC run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Elijah Hood: 79 carries, 545 yards, 6.9 ypc, 6 TDs
Marquise Williams: 56 carries, 405 yards, 7.2 ypc, 5 TDs

UNC offense:
218.5 yards/game, 6.15 yards/attempt
5th of 128 (national), 1st of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
160.83 yards/game, 4.47 yards/attempt
79th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

Here's where it gets scary.  OK, let's be honest, here's why UVA is going to lose this game.  The Hoos could move the ball.  The run game has a chance to be respectable and the quarterback play is still solid.  That seems good until you see how an offense really operates.  There's a lot of experience everywhere on this side of the ball and Larry Fedora is a quality offensive mind.

Elijah Hood is in his sophomore season and now living up to the hype.  He's just shy of seven yards a carry, and capable of running people right over.  He gets a lot of running room from an incredibly experienced interior line; right guard Landon Turner in particular is a pro prospect, and all five starting linemen were also starters last year.  On negative plays, which are few and far between, Hood has only lost six yards all year.  By comparison, Taquan Mizzell lost seven on negative plays just against Syracuse.

Then you add Marquise Williams's legs, which not only have plays run specifically for them but can also carry him right out of trouble.  The UVA defensive line really stinks at maintaining containment in the pocket and this tendency is going to burn them like eight or ten times.  Not even a little bit optimistic about this.

-- UNC pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Marquise Williams: 84/131, 64.1%; 1,127 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs; 8.6 ypa, 149.9 rating

Top receivers:
Quinshad Davis: 24 rec., 288 yards, 1 TD
Ryan Switzer: 19 rec., 265 yards, 2 TDs
Bug Howard: 17 rec., 281 yards, 2 TDs

UNC offense:
263.7 yards/game, 9.4 yards/attempt
12th of 128 (national), 1st of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
252.2 yards/game, 8.0 yards/attempt
109th of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

And this is worse.  Williams has been awfully efficient, and not only that, but he spreads the ball around exceptionally well.  Four different receivers - the players above plus Mack Hollins - have a minimum of 265 yards.  Three of them are 6'4" or taller (Switzer is the only exception.)

There is no need to overanalyze this.  UVA's secondary has been horrendous this year at reading routes and communication and important stuff like making sure all the receivers are covered and not triple-covering some decoy route.  UNC has tall, fast receivers, running a system basically guaranteed to confound a very confundable secondary, and a quarterback that, should you succeed in getting pressure on him, will destroy you for losing contain, which this D-line does all the time.  UVA's best chance may be to run a 2-3-6 defense, put two defensive ends on one side, at least try to force Williams to operate in just half the field, and flood the secondary with defenders.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4
Pass offense: 3
Run defense: 1
Pass defense: 0

I considered a negative number for the pass defense.

Average: 1.5

That's not really the average, but we're tacking on a half-point penalty for special teams, because Fedora loves to mess with London, who has yet to figure out how to defend a fake punt.

-- Outlook

If only the ability to sometimes make chicken salad out of the run game could sustain a game.  At best I think UVA can use it to artificially pump up the time of possession and limit UNC's chances with the ball.  They have such an explosive offense it might not matter, and even when the Hoos do get a stop, who knows what might happen.  A popular sentiment on the boards this week, what with Syracuse running yet another successful fake punt on UVA's special teams, is that UNC will do the same thing when they get a chance.  That seems likely, unless Fedora is just holding things close to the vest.

Which he might do, considering the strong likelihood that his offense will make mincemeat out of this defense.  UVA under London has shown no propensity whatsoever to stopping a Fedora offense, or Marquise Williams in particular.  Except for most of the second half last year until they ruined it by giving up the game winning drive, allowing recovery of an onside kick, and then handing UNC a first down on 4th-and-1 by putting 12 men on the field.  Truly a Mike London Special.  This one's not ending well, either.

Final score: UNC 45, UVA 13

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: none

Clemson @ Miami - 12:00 - This one might put a few more Fire Golden planes in the sky.

NC State @ Wake Forest - 12:00 - The Pack losing this one would make a mockery of the scheduling-for-success concept after their hideous OOC slate.

Pittsburgh @ Syracuse - 12:00 - Pitt can be the third ACC team to earn bowl eligibility; quite a first season for Pat Narduzzi.

Boston College @ Louisville - 12:30 - Battle of the Birdies.

Duke @ Virginia Tech - 3:30 - Michael Brewer returns to QB for the Hokies, but it's their once-vaunted defense that's bringing them down this year.

Florida State @ Georgia Tech - 7:00 - Raise your hand if you thought GT would start the ACC season 0-5.  Yup, that's nobody.

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