As Virginia Tech looks to bounce back against North Carolina in Chapel Hill after falling at home to the Fighting Irish, these three matchups will be the important ones to watch.
Virginia Tech Secondary vs. UNC QB
Last week, one of the keys to the game for the Hokies was whether or not the young secondary could shut down Notre Dame’s big receivers, namely Miles Boykin. They were largely unable to do so, as Boykin had 8 receptions for 117 yards and 2 touchdowns. One of them was a 40 yard score due to an obvious blown coverage.
The challenge for the Hokies secondary is a little different this week. The focus will be on whoever is playing quarterback for UNC more so than the receivers. The reason for this focus is a little different, as well. Rather than trying to shut down a receiver who has been hot, Virginia Tech is hoping to take advantage of a weakness for the Tar Heels.
There is no way to sugar coat it: North Carolina’s quarterback play has been abysmal this season. The one exception came against Pittsburgh, where Nathan Elliot threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns. However, in the other three games he has started, Elliot has thrown for only 153 yards a game. Even worse, he has one touchdown to four interceptions in those three outings.
North Carolina made it clear in their last game that they do not have very much confidence in Elliot. On UNC’s second drive of the game against Miami, Elliot fumbled, and Miami took it to the house. The Tar Heels then proceeded to trot out Chazz Surratt, a true sophomore quarterback who was suspended for the first three games.
Surratt promptly threw interceptions on two of his first four drives, but the Tar Heels left him in the game. It wasn’t until the third quarter that North Carolina put Elliot back in. In his very first drive of the second half, Elliot fumbled again.
Later in the third quarter, Surratt came back in, only to throw another pick six. He also injured himself trying to make a tackle after throwing that third interception, so it appears that Elliot will be the starter against the Hokies. In any case, the Hokies need to take advantage of a turnover-prone UNC team.
For the Hokies, they hope to get starting free safety Divine Deablo back from a hamstring injury. If he is unable to go, Tyree Rodgers will have to step up. Rodgers had a rough beginning to his first start this past Saturday, but he deserves credit for the way he settled in. Tech needs that improvement to continue should Rodgers start this weekend.
Virginia Tech has forced five interceptions so far this season, including Reggie Floyd’s beautiful read to intercept Ian Book on Saturday. If the Hokies can win the turnover battle against North Carolina, that could very well decide the game.
Virginia Tech Offensive Line vs. North Carolina Defensive Line
As far as the battle in the trenches goes on this side of the ball, Virginia Tech catches a big break this week. Malik Carney, arguably North Carolina’s best defensive end, will be suspended on Saturday.
In just two games this season, Carney has recorded 13 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. Those numbers are incredible, and the Tar Heels will have a tough time trying to replace production like that.
One option to replace Carney is junior Tomon Fox. Fox served his one game suspension during the Tar Heels game against Miami, but before that, he was having a productive season. Fox enters with 4 tackles for loss and 1 sack in three games this season.
On the offensive line for Virginia Tech, things have been a bit of a roller coaster. As a position group that was supposed to be strength for this Hokies team, the OL has disappointed at times. In particular, Fuente has expressed his frustration with some unnecessary penalties on the line.
Tech’s offensive line has certainly done some good things. For example, they were outstanding in both pass blocking and run blocking in the Hokies’ 586-yard performance against William and Mary.
At the same time, the offensive line has done some bad things (see the three plays from the one yard line against Notre Dame). Overall, the run blocking has been pretty good, but the pass protection needs work.
Ryan Willis showed that he can become more mistake prone when scrambling out of the pocket. That is what led to that fumble in the second quarter against the Irish. If Virginia Tech’s offensive line can give Willis time to find his receivers, the Hokies should be able to move well on offense.
Justin Fuente vs. Larry Fedora
Rumors have been flying since Fuente’s first matchup with Fedora that these two have some sort of vendetta against one another. Fuente is 2-0 against the Tar Heels, and he has outscored them by a margin of 93-10.
Last year, there was the infamous Cam Phillips quote. Phillips claimed during UNC week, “Every player, every coach has a certain team that like, gets under their skin, like that they really want to beat more than anybody else. I know for Coach (Justin Fuente), this is probably that team.”
Of course Fuente, who is always very level-headed, denied that this was true, saying, “No one game is more important than another one.” Still, he does not appear to like Fedora very much. Their handshake at the end of last year’s game was anything but friendly.
From an X’s and O’s standpoint, Fuente is a better coach. This was evident in the Hokies’ game against UNC last year. Despite winning 59-7, VT had only 383 total yards. So how did they dominate the game? The Virginia Tech coaching staff outsmarted North Carolina’s.
The Hokies scored in all three phases during that game. Josh Jackson threw three touchdowns, Ricky Walker returned a fumble for a touchdown, and Greg Stroman took a punt return to the house. Virginia Tech dominated the Tar Heels on every front, due in large part to better coaching.
While the matchup I wrote only mentions Fuente and Fedora, the entire staff will certainly play a huge role. Namely, it has become apparent that Bud Foster is having to think outside the box in order to get production from this young defense.
Foster has the tough task of making defensive adjustments each week while also not changing the scheme so much that the young guys cannot pick it up. Outside of a couple lapses, the defensive scheme worked decently well against a prolific Notre Dame offense. I would expect Foster to keep a similar approach this week, especially if Deablo is back.
Virginia Tech matches up pretty well against North Carolina this week. The weakest part of the Hokies’ defense will be going up against the weakest part of the Tar Heels’ offense, and UNC is mistake prone.
One thing the Hokies will have to do is capitalize on those mistakes. There is no reason that Virginia Tech should not win the turnover battle in Chapel Hill. That will be an important factor in the outcome.
Last but not least, Fuente doesn’t like UNC. He can deny it, but it’s true. Hopefully the Hokies will play like they don’t like UNC either, at least for this week. As Fuente always harps on, “All we can do is go 1-0.”