Can Virginia win a track meet against Carolina’s high-powered offense?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

UNC quarterback Sam Howell (Photo: goheels.com)

When the South’s Oldest Rivalry resumes this Saturday night at Scott Stadium, North Carolina will be packing one of the nation’s top offenses.

The Tar Heels are ranked No. 8 in the country in total offense with 531 yards per game and No. 20 in scoring offense at 37.8 points per game.

Should UNC continue that pace against Virginia, can the Cavaliers answer? Can UVA survive a track meet against Carolina?

Bronco Mendenhall’s pillars are based upon his offense scoring 24 points and giving up less than 24 points. UVA has scored 24 or more only once (38 vs. Duke) and won that game. Against the other opponents in the four-game losing streak, the Cavaliers have scored 23, 21, 23 and 19.

On the other side of the ball, UVA’s defense has held two opponents to less than 24. It gave up 20 to Duke and won, and gave up 19 at Miami last Saturday and could have won had it not been for a gaffe lining up on the line of scrimmage.

Certainly the Cavaliers have had some issues at the quarterback position of late when starter Brennan Armstrong missed a game-and-a-half with a concussion. That’s part of the reason Virginia is ranked No. 75 in the nation in scoring (23.8) and No. 46 in total offense (411.6).

Carolina boasts quarterback Sam Howell, who many believe is the ACC’s second-best behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Howell is passing for around 280 yards per game, one of the top 25 passing attacks in the country.

But where the Tar Heels have really beaten opponents is with a powerful running game, 12th-best in the nation, averaging 249 yards on the ground per game. Virginia simply can’t allow UNC to control the game with its running attack. If Carolina controls the line of scrimmage and rushes for 200 yards, game over.

The good news for UVA is that its strength on defense should be a good matchup against the Heels’ ground game.

Virginia is ranked No. 42 in rush defense, giving up 133.6 yards per game.

“The run defense has been consistent all year,” Mendenhall said. “I think it’s 3.3 yards per carry, which is usually at a pretty elite level in college football. So that part continues to remain strong.”

If UVA can negate Carolina’s rushing, that means Howell will have to win the game with his arm. He’s certainly capable, particularly if Virginia’s secondary isn’t at full strength for the third consecutive week.

Mendenhall’s top two defensive backs, Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, were injured in the NC State loss, then couldn’t play at Wake Forest. As of Monday afternoon, the coach said he hadn’t received an update on their status for Saturday. Another DB, Darrius Bratton, was injured at Miami, but there was no update on his health either.

If the Cavaliers go up against Howell & Co. without a healthy secondary, it could be a long day for Virginia.

“Our secondary over the past couple of weeks hasn’t been as consistent in their execution or communication, and so big plays have been more than what we would have liked,” Mendenhall said. “Execution, execution, execution in the back end will lead to consistency. We just need that to happen sooner rather than later.”

As far as injuries in his defensive backfield, Mendenhall said that some new pieces (replacements) is just the way college football works.

“We need to get them caught up to speed and executing at a high level as fast as possible,” the coach said.

Carolina returns a lot of its talent from last season on offense and many believe this edition is better than a year ago.

“When you have returning talent with that much production and the system that’s preparing them, certainly,” Mendenhall said, when the question was posed if the Tar Heels could be better. “That’s why it’s so great to have a returning quarterback every year. But then if you happen to have running backs and receivers also, that’s a blessing. So, yes, I think they’re better. It’s one of the main contributing factors for their success.”

With Armstrong back last week, Virginia’s offense looked somewhat better, even though its lone deep threat, 6-foot-7 freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., was out and is likely out again this week.

UVA moved the ball, but couldn’t light up the scoreboard.

“Not many big plays,” Mendenhall said. “The play to Terrell Jana (49 yards on a catch-and-run, mostly run) was probably one of the main big plays in the game. So more methodical.

“The ground game was working well. The passing game, in terms of short and intermediate, but not many significant chunks. And then it’s kind of stalled with mistakes and penalties, the miscues on our part.”

Virginia can’t afford a repeat against the ranked Tar Heels. If it does, this one could be over by halftime.

However, there are a couple of factors that could swing things for the Cavaliers if the offense does its part.

Virginia’s defense, minus the crippled secondary, showed up to play, controlled Miami’s run game for the most part, and finally managed to put pressure on an opposing quarterback, posting five sacks, although it didn’t force a turnover.

Some UNC observers said the way Florida State stunned the Tar Heels two weeks ago was by establishing superior physical play from the get-go. Virginia is a very physical team, so that could weigh in the Cavaliers’ favor.

One thing is for sure. Virginia’s collective backs are against the wall. The Cavaliers must win five of their remaining six games to have a winning season. They are 6- to 7-point underdogs at home to the high-flying Tar Heels.

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