This game coming up on Thursday against the Tarheels is an odd game. If the Hokies win, they keep their momentum going, on a Thursday night home game when the crowd will be nuts, and it will put all the pressure on Virginia to have to beat Florida State on Saturday. If they lose.........they can still reach the goal of the ACC title game by beating Virginia the following week no matter what happens in the Virginia-FSU game on Saturday.
The key will be whether the Hokies can stay focused enough on this week's game against an immensely talented UNC Tarheel team to win even when their backs are not up against the wall. Despite the talent that the Heels are bringing to Blacksburg, they have underperformed this season, no doubt due to the crazy distraction of NCAA investigations and the ouster of their coach on the eve of the season. But all that said, let's look at the matchup anyway, because at this point, already eliminated from the ACC title game, this is the final big game of UNC's season. National TV, all eyes on the program and their pride is on the line. They will play hard and when you see how many playmakers how they have, you will probably be as nervous as I am. Ok well maybe not that nervous (I hope not for your stomach's sake) but you will be uneasy anyway.
UNC has a total of 1 touchback on kickoffs this season. Hokie kicker Justin Myer is 4th in the country with 44% of his kickoffs resulting in touchbacks. UNC is 109th in the nation in punt returns, the Hokies are 34th. UNC is 116th in the nation in punting, the Hokies are 120th, BUT that's because the Hokies inexplicably used Scott Demler for the first several games of the season. Freshman punter Michael Branthover would rank 85th in the country if he had enough punts on the year to qualify. Not great, but a far cry from very last in the nation. Overall the Hokies' edge in special teams looks dominant on paper. I'd like to see them actually field a kickoff return cleanly for a change, but this should help in the battle for field position.
VT Defense vs. UNC Offense
If I'm UNC QB Bryn Renner, I would bring an extra few Advil for this trip. He was knocked out of the NC State game with a concussion, and he now faces the 3rd best pass rush in the country. Even when the Hokies don't sack Renner, you can be sure they are going to get his jersey dirty. The UNC offensive line is FEARSOME big, and have done an excellent job clearing running lanes for freshman RB Giovanni Bernard, but they are a step slow in stopping the pass rush as they rank 86th in the country in sacks allowed. Uh-oh.
Of course, the Tarheel coaches recognize this and I expect there to be quite a few max-protect formations to give Renner time. And if he does have time, there could be trouble because the UNC receivers are incredibly talented. Dwight Jones is one of the top receivers in the country and Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd are big, physical targets who have combined to catch 7 touchdowns on the season. This is the best receiving corps the Hokies will face this season (outside of the one they go against in practice everyday). Clemson's WR corps has a better player in Sammy Watkins but overall UNC's is better. The Heels will try and set-up the pass with the run so it will be critical for the freshmen tackles (Maddy and Marshall) to really hold their own in the trenches. It will probably be a relief for LB Tariq Edwards to face a "normal" offense after the poor showing he had last week against the Yellow Jackets. He needs to be a playmaker in this game as I-formation offenses almost always require excellent gap control. This game is a much better fit for MLB Barquell Rivers, who may have lost a half-step, BUT he's always had good instincts for moving through the "trash" in the trenches to fill holes. Unfortunately, this is a game where the Whip gets a ton of action in making plays from the blitz and in the flat and Kyle Fuller will likely have to play the spot again with the absence of Alonzo Tweedy and his lingering ankle injury. Fuller is a stud but he's undersized in a game like this.
Renner is a gunslinger at QB. If he gets hot, he can be very, very hard to stop. The Hokie pass rush has to stop that from happening, because on the flip side, he will make some ill-advised throws if he's not hot and that can lead to some turnovers. We'll see if Coach Foster can continue to work the magic.
VT Offense vs. UNC Defense
After my last post about Coach O'Cain and his "flexible" approach to offense, it will be interesting to see how he gameplans for this week. The Tarheels are VERY stout against the run with their usual NFL stable of linebackers led by Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick who are #1 and #2 in tackles on the team. The Hokies always want to get David Wilson involved, but this UNC defense is LAST in the league in pass defense and 9th in the league in passing touchdowns allowed. I hope to see the passing game set-up the run this week. I expect UNC to load the box up to stop Wilson and give Thomas a chance to get the receivers involved in a ball-control passing game like we saw against Arkansas State. Recall that last year's game in Chapel Hill was a breakout for Marcus Davis. He has been ridiculously inconsistent this season, but he has fantastic ability and if he can get the ball in space against UNC, he can make them pay again and again. And DJ Coles has been a revelation this season with the ball in his hands, so I hope that continues.
I'd love to see the Hokies break the record for 400 yard games in a season, but more than that, I want to see them continue to dominate in time of possession. UNC does not have a quick strike offense, and you can keep a streaky QB very cold if you can keep him on the sidelines. That's why I alluded to a ball-control passing game above. Screens, slants, quick outs these are the order of the day. Keep the chains moving behind the blitzing 8 man fronts that UNC will likely employ to keep Wilson from getting yet another 100 yard game. If the Hokies can do that until UNC is forced to back that safety up, well we all know what Mr. Wilson is capable of.
I don't see this being a big opportunity for Chris Drager in the receiving game, but Tech sure will need him in protection. Drager has made some key catches the past few weeks, but he isn't fast enough to shake these LB's and will be much more useful in keeping Thomas upright and letting the receivers do the damage. And I'd also expect to see less running out of Thomas himself this week. The read-option play is just not going to be very effective against such an athletic front seven. I do, however, think I know what play to call on third and inches.
So how do the Hokies focus enough on the game to play at the level needed to win on Thursday? It is so hard to win in the ACC, week in and week out against teams as talented as the Tarheels, much less when you feel like you "get a mulligan" if you lose. This is where Beamer's mantra this season "keep getting better" will be tested. Has this phrase sunk in? Do the players understand how important it is to keep the momentum going? They sure don't want to go into the game in Charlottesville coming off a loss. It isn't about BCS bowls and at-large bids or any of that ridiculous talk. It's about continuing to improve and play harder and better every week so that if they get a chance to defend their ACC title they will be playing their best football. We'll see if this team truly buys into that on Thursday. Until then,