Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
After two straight wins, the Virginia Tech Hokies have arguably their biggest game of the season thus far against North Carolina this Saturday. If they want to earn an important win, these three matchups will be pivotal to their success.
Sam Howell vs. Virginia Tech Safeties
At the beginning of the season, the quarterback position was a huge question mark for UNC. Mack Brown and his staff decided to go with true freshman Sam Howell, and that decision has turned out even better than they could have imagined.
Howell has quickly emerged as one of the most talented quarterbacks in the ACC. His 1,544 total yards and 15 touchdowns are good for second in the conference in both categories.
Another impressive statistic about Howell is how few times he has turned the ball over. Through 6 games, he has thrown just 3 interceptions, impressive for any starting QB and even more for a true freshman.
On the Hokies’ side of the ball, they will have some unknowns in the secondary. Starting rover Reggie Floyd will miss the first half against UNC due to a targeting foul he committed in the fourth quarter against Rhode Island.
In place of Floyd, redshirt sophomore Devon Hunter will get his first start. Pass coverage was a bit of a question mark for Hunter last year, and he admitted that was a big part of why he decided to redshirt.
Hunter says he has spent the past year working a lot on his pass coverage abilities. He will need to show that on Saturday, as Howell and the UNC offense will likely throw at him early to see how comfortable he feels.
Dazz Newsome vs. Caleb Farley
In a talented wide receiver corps for the Tar Heels, the one name that sticks out above the rest is junior Dazz Newsome. He has caught 29 passes for 367 yards and 3 touchdowns already this season with his 29 receptions leading the Tar Heels.
However, it is not just the stats that make Newsome an interesting matchup for the Hokies. He also has many personal connections to Virginia Tech.
Both Newsome’s brother, Deon, and father, Myron, played at Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster had some particularly high praise for Myron Newsome earlier this week.
“Myron is one of my all time favorite players,” Foster said.
Though the Hokies were involved in Newsome’s recruitment right up until the end, he ended up choosing Chapel Hill. Given those factors, he will probably have a little bit of extra motivation this weekend.
For that reason, Caleb Farley and the rest of the Virginia Tech cornerbacks are going to have to be on their A-game. While Newsome has been working on his short route running, his most natural ability comes in the deep passing game.
With the aforementioned loss of Reggie Floyd, a lot of Hokies are going to need to step up in pass defense, particularly in the first half. That includes not only Hunter, but also Farley, who will need to stay tight in coverage whether or not there is safety help over the top.
Deshawn McClease vs. UNC Defensive Line
After a bit of a slow start to the season, Deshawn McClease has put together three straight solid performances. By far his best game of the season was last week against Rhode Island.
McClease racked up 124 yards on just 12 carries for an impressive 10.3 yards per carry average. He also added a touchdown on the ground against the Rams.
If Deshawn McClease can provide that kind of production, the Virginia Tech offense opens up greatly. For example, tight end Dalton Keene said after last week’s game that a strong running back opens up more room for the tight ends to work.
In addition, North Carolina’s run defense has not been particularly great so far this year. The Tar Heels have allowed 160.8 yards per game on the ground, which puts them 72nd nationally in that category.
If Brad Cornelsen and his offense can get the running game going early, that could have a huge impact for the Hokies. Whether that involves McClease, Keshawn King, Hendon Hooker, or a combination of the three, it will be an essential aspect of Virginia Tech’s offense this week.
Overall, the Hokies have a solid chance to gain a quality conference victory at home on Saturday. If Virginia Tech can beat North Carolina, the outlook on the season becomes much more positive in Blacksburg.
In order for that to happen, the Hokies will need to focus on having a strong pass defense and establishing a running game. If they can accomplish that, this should be a very interesting game to watch.