Tar Heel fans in the UNC student section wait for the kickoff against Virginia Tech. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — And welcome to game day, folks. Beautiful day in Chapel Hill for North Carolina’s first ACC game against a divisional opponent, which comes here at Kenan Stadium today against Virginia Tech. This is the first of a double-header for me, as I’ll close the day in Carter-Finley Stadium for N.C. State’s game against Florida State.
More than two hours before kickoff between the Tar Heels and Hokies, some things to know and, as always, a prediction …
Virginia Tech at UNC
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill
TV/radio: Fox Sports South/106.1-WRDU
Three things to watch:
1. How UNC defends Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas. The Hokies’ quarterback is a load – 6-6 and about 250 pounds. The Tar Heels want to keep him in the pocket and get him on the ground when they get to him.
2. The battle on special teams. We all know about Beamerball, and how important special teams are to Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. But Larry Fedora is also maniacal about them. Who wins special teams today?
3. Can the Tar Heels handle success? UNC fell flat after its dominant season-opening victory against Elon, and then lost two consecutive games. If the Heels start well today, they should remain in the game and have a chance to win.
Key player from the opposing team: QB, Logan Thomas. Virginia Tech during the past decade hasn’t lacked for playmakers, but positive game-changing plays have been lacking this season amid the Hokies’ disappointing 3-2 start. Thomas entered the season as a candidate to win ACC Player of the Year honors but he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.
Still, he remains the Hokies’ most imposing offensive threat – both literally and figuratively. At 6-6 and 245 pounds, Thomas is built more like a linebacker than a quarterback. He can beat teams with his running ability – he ran for 469 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, but has struggled to find running room this season – or with his arm.
As Thomas has gone, so have the Hokies. In their three victories, Thomas has thrown six touchdowns and one interception. In their two defeats, he has thrown for two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Key matchup: North Carolina’s special teams, led by CB Pete Mangum, vs. Virginia Tech’s special teams, led by PR Kyshoen Jarrett
UNC and Virginia Tech have combined to block four punts, and both teams have returned punts for touchdowns.
The significance of special teams is no secret at Virginia Tech, where its proclivity for blocking kicks and scoring special teams touchdowns under Beamer coined the phrase “Beamerball.” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora also stresses the importance of special teams, and he coaches UNC’s punt block unit.
Mangum, who blocked in UNC’s 66-0 victory against Idaho last week, has been the Heels’ special teams player of the week for three weeks running. Jarrett is third nationally in punt returns, and returned one 94 yards for a touchdown in the Hokies loss at Pittsburgh.
It wouldn’t be the first time if a game against the Hokies came down to special teams.
Key mismatch: UNC’s front six, including LB Kevin Reddick, vs. RB Michael Holmes and the Virginia Tech rushing offense
Good rushing offenses have been the norm during the Hokies’ run of eight consecutive 10-win seasons. Virginia Tech has ranked no worse than 36th nationally in rushing offense in each of the past four seasons, but the Hokies will enter Kenan Stadium averaging 149.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 77th nationally.
Virginia Tech’s struggles in the ground game aren’t all that surprising, considering the Hokies returned just one starter on the offensive line (C Andrew Miller) and that they are relying on a pair of freshmen running backs in Holmes and J.C. Coleman.
Reddick and the Tar Heels’ defense, meanwhile, rank 16th nationally in run defense, and are allowing 95.6 rushing yards per game.
Key number: 13 – The Hokies have never lost an ACC regular-season game in North Carolina. Since joining the conference in 2004, Virginia Tech is 13-0 in ACC regular-season games in the state – and 4-0 at UNC’s Kenan Stadium. The Heels haven’t beaten Virginia Tech at Kenan since 1938, but the teams have only played five times there since.
Pulse check: The ACC announced earlier this week that teams serving a postseason ban wouldn’t be eligible to win conference or divisional recognition. Which means that UNC is ineligible to be recognized as the Coastal Division champion. No matter, Fedora said. Winning the division is still a goal for the Heels, who need to beat the Hokies to climb back into the divisional race. Virginia Tech hasn’t been impressive this season, while UNC has been – albeit against weaker competition. After two easy victories, UNC will see where it really stands against Virginia Tech, which UNC players and coaches have described as the Heels most difficult test to date.
Quote of the week: “I think we'll know a lot about this football team after this game. Obviously Virginia Tech is a very good football team. They've always been great on special teams. They're known for their defense and they're going to play hard‑nosed football … We're going to find out a lot more about the identity of this football team Saturday somewhere around 4:00.” –Fedora
Loosely-related-to-the-game pregame haiku:
Plenty of theories
But the mystery endures
What is a Hokie?
Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, North Carolina 23
Almost game time.