The oldest rivalry in the South resumes tonight when North Carolina plays Virginia. ROBERT WILLETT
ON THE ROAD TO CHARLOTTESVILLE — Welcome, folks to North Carolina highway 86. I’m riding, longtime NandO photographer Robert Willett is driving, and we’re headed to Charlottesville for North Carolina’s game tonight at Virginia. And yes, I am packing thermal underwear for the open-air press box.
Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know. Here are some things you probably would like to know:
North Carolina at Virginia
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.
Three things to watch:
1. The UNC pass defense. Virginia isn’t a good running team, and UNC (with the exception of last week against Georgia Tech and against Duke) has been pretty good defensively against the run. So expect t he Cavaliers to pass. Michael Rocco had a career game for Virginia last week – 300 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions against Miami. Does the Heels’ pass defense show some signs of life today?
2. How the Heels start the game. The way UNC starts the game tonight is likely to say a lot about where this team is mentally. After a 68-50 defeat at home last week against Georgia Tech, it’s fair to question how inspired UNC might be during its final two games. The Heels’ most important victory is behind them. There’s no bowl game to look forward to. Can the Tar Heels remain focused?
3. Giovani Bernard. Because, hey, why not? Duke Johnson, the Miami freshman running back, put up some video game numbers against Virginia last week. Bernard has done that a time or two this season, and he has a chance for another memorable game on Thursday night.
Key player from the opposition: Virginia QB Michael Rocco lost his starting position earlier this season after throwing three interceptions in a 44-38 loss against Louisiana Tech. But Rocco, who has rotated with Phillip Sims at quarterback throughout the season, played the finest game of his career in Virginia’s 41-40 victory against Miami last week.
After regaining the starting job, Rocco completed 29 of his 37 attempts for 300 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Both Rocco and Sims were ineffective for sustained stretches during the Cavaliers six-game losing streak earlier this season, but they’ve combined for six touchdowns and one interception the past two weeks.
Key matchup: North Carolina’s secondary vs. Rocco, Sims and the Virginia passing game.
In theory, the Tar Heels’ 4-2-5 defense is supposed to be better suited to defend against the pass, because it utilizes a fifth defensive back. In reality, though, UNC has at times been abysmal against the pass for three consecutive games.
Georgia Tech, which doesn’t often pass, threw for 208 yards against the Tar Heels last week. Before that, both N.C. State and Duke moved the ball effectively through the air.
Rocco, the Virginia junior, is likely to enter this game with a renewed sense of confidence after his performance on Saturday. With six interceptions in their past four games, the Tar Heels’ pass defense has done a good job of generating turnovers. Now it has to eliminate the kind of mistakes that have resulted in big gains.
Key mismatch: UNC’s defensive front, led by DT Sylvester Williams, vs. RB Kevin Parks and the Virginia running game.
The Cavaliers have tried to establish the run this season but haven’t often been successful. Virginia averages less than 4 yards per carry and ranks 86th nationally in rushing offense.
The Cavaliers ran for 248 yards in their 33-6 victory at N.C. State two weeks ago but, outside of that, Virginia hasn’t gained more than 186 rushing yards in any game this season, and it has been held to less than 100 yards rushing in four games.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, allowed 380 yards rushing in their 68-50 loss against Georgia Tech on Saturday, but UNC has usually fared well against mediocre running teams. The Heels have held three ACC opponents – Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and N.C. State – to 67 yards rushing or fewer.
Key number: 544 – The Tar Heels have allowed their past three opponents an average of 544 yards of offense and in those games, Duke, N.C. State and Georgia Tech all averaged at least 5.7 yards per play. It has a been a disastrous defensive stretch for UNC, which must reverse that trend to win on the road against the improving Cavaliers.
Pulse check: The Tar Heels had no time to mourn following that 68-50 defeat against Georgia Tech. Never before in ACC history had a team scored more points and lost. But this, a quick turnaround for a Thursday night road game, is exactly what UNC needed, first-year coach Larry Fedora said throughout the week. UNC can’t play for bowl positioning, but the Tar Heels’ goal of finishing first in the Coastal Division is still attainable with a victory at Virginia.
Quote of the week: “I think the best thing about is it’s coming quick. And there’s only one way to get that taste out of your mouth. And that’s to get back out on the field.” –UNC coach Larry Fedora, on moving on quickly from the loss against Georgia Tech to the Thursday night game at Virginia
Loosely-related-to-the-game pregame haiku:
Open air press box
On a thirty-degree night
Hazards of the job
Prediction: North Carolina 31, Virginia 30