Last year, Virginia Tech went to Chapel Hill and blew out North Carolina 34-3 in the middle of Hurricane Matthew. Saturday, the Hokies and Tar Heels will face off in significantly better weather conditions. However, the Hokies are also ranked 11 spots higher this time while UNC is in the midst of their worst season in over a decade.
With that said, here are the keys to the game.
Contain Michael Carter
North Carolina has found an offensive spark recently via freshman RB Michael Carter. Carter is averaging 6.4 yards per carry and had a huge game last Saturday with 13 carries for 157 yards and 2 touchdowns against Virginia.
Carter has shown lots of potential, and it’s safe to assume that Larry Fedora will try to use Carter a lot. However, Virginia Tech’s rush defense has been quite good at shutting down traditional rushing attack and any opposing running backs since their opener.
In their past two games, the Hokies have held Clemson’s Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne, and Boston College’s AJ Dillon and Jon Hillman to under 4 yards per carry. The Hokies have been excellent at shutting down opposing tailbacks with opponents’ having most of their rushing success coming from their quarterback.
With the struggles that UNC has had throwing the ball, it will be critical for them to get Carter going if they are to have a shot. However, UNC hasn’t faced a defense as good as the Hokies, and Carter will face a difficult challenge backing up his big game last week.
Build WR Depth
North Carolina has an elite cornerback in MJ Stewart, but their secondary is fairly weak outside of Stewart. Stewart will likely mark Cam Phillips whenever he is on the field, and cover Sean Savoy when Phillips isn’t playing. This game presents a great opportunity for some of the Hokies’ other receivers to get meaningful reps and continue to build confidence including Eric Kumah and Henri Murphy.
Over the past two games, Kumah and Murphy have both broken out with Kumah having 7 catches for 70 yards in the past two games, and Murphy having 6 catches for 83 yards. Both Kumah and Murphy have stepped up over the past two games, but the Hokies will be looking for some more consistency from them.
Against a UNC defense that is arguably the worst in the ACC, Kumah and Murphy have a great chance for big games, especially after what they did against a quality Boston College secondary. No one should be surprised to see Kumah or Murphy have strong performances this week.
This game also presents a chance for Phil Patterson to build some confidence if he’s healthy. Injuries have prevented the redshirt freshman from playing so far this season, but Patterson isn’t on the injury report this week and appears ready to go.
If the Hokies can build the confidence of receivers not named Phillips, Savoy, or CJ Carroll this week, it’ll be another step in the right direction.
Take Care of Business
Virginia Tech should be motivated to play North Carolina given that this is their first Coastal game along with the UNC fan trash talk about the Hokies winning last year’s game only because of the hurricane, not because of the obvious fact that Virginia Tech was the better football team.
This game is a mismatch and a great opportunity for the Hokies to give their backups some meaningful reps, but they need to take care of business and come out with plenty of intensity early and often. VT did so against Boston College in the first half, but turned off the intensity in the second half and were never able to put the game far enough out of reach for the backups to get in the game.
Motivation shouldn’t be an issue given all the Twitter hoopla that the players have certainly seen from UNC fans over the past year since that game. This game is an opportunity for the Hokies to use that bulletin board material to send a message to UNC that the Hokies are restoring order to the Coastal Division.
Expect Virginia Tech to come out with a chip on their shoulder ready to send a message specifically to the UNC fan base Saturday afternoon.