The Virginia Cavaliers are making noise in the ACC this season, and at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play, Bronco Mendenhall’s squad still controls its destiny in the ACC Coastal Division race. The Cavaliers, who beat Duke 28-14 last week, have an opportunity to secure bowl eligibility Saturday when they host the North Carolina Tar Heels in the 123rd edition of the South’s Oldest Rivalry.
North Carolina fell to a disappointing 1-5 overall and 1-3 in ACC play after losing to Syracuse on the road a week ago. But the Tar Heels, who led most of the second half but fell in double overtime, have been much more competitive than their record would indicate. The loss was UNC’s second straight by a field goal margin and the third this year by a single possession. Of course, close doesn’t cut it. With each loss, head coach Larry Fedora’s seat gets a little warmer, and North Carolina’s bowl hopes grow dimmer.
North Carolina at Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 12:20 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Virginia -9
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins has been one of the top instant impact players in the ACC in 2018, and he’s a major reason why the Cavaliers are in the mix to win the Coastal. Perkins, who began his collegiate career at Arizona State and spent last season at Arizona Western Community College, quickly emerged as the starter once he arrived in Charlottesville. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior has completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 1,406 yards and 12 touchdowns, with seven interceptions in seven starts. Also a gifted runner, Perkins has added 463 yards and five TDs on the ground.
North Carolina hasn’t been as fortunate at the position, with Fedora forced to play three QBs already. Chazz Surratt was projected to start for the Tar Heels, but a three-game suspension sidelined him and Nathan Elliott topped the depth chart for the first five weeks. Surratt made his 2018 debut in relief against Miami, but he threw three interceptions and later suffered a season-ending wrist injury. True freshman Cade Fortin started against Virginia Tech but he was also injured and is questionable to return against the Cavaliers. That leaves Elliott, who has shown flashes and posted solid statistics, including a pair of 300-yard passing performances. Overall, the junior has completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 1,241 yards and six touchdowns with four interceptions — though he hasn’t tossed a pick since Week 1.
2. Stopping the run
Both Virginia and North Carolina rely on the running game offensively. In addition to Perkins, Virginia running back Jordan Ellis has been a top performer for the Cavaliers. Ellis (who is questionable to play because of an ankle injury) leads the squad and ranks third in the ACC with 619 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. The Heels’ two-headed rushing attack consists of Antonio Williams and Michael Carter, who have averaged an impressive 6.5 and 7.1 yards per attempt, respectively. Williams, a transfer from Ohio State, has 424 rushing yards (seventh most in the league) and four TDs and has posted 100 yards in a game twice this season. Carter ran for 165 yards against Virginia Tech and has 292 rushing yards this year.
With so much talent on hand, both defenses will have their hands full stopping the run. North Carolina has struggled to do so and ranks 12th in the ACC and 96th nationally in rushing defense (188.5 yards allowed per game). The Tar Heels have shown improvement in recent weeks, however. After surrendering 220 rushing yards or more in three straight games to close September, Carolina held Virginia Tech to 154 rushing yards and Syracuse to 140 — a season low for the unit.
Virginia has been much better, statistically speaking. The Cavaliers rank No. 5 in the conference and No. 25 in the country against the run (119.7). Only one opponent has managed more than 200 yards on the ground in a game, and the Cavaliers have held three teams under 100, including Duke last week. The Blue Devils gained just 58 yards on 27 attempts — a 2.15-yard average that was Virginia’s best of the season against an FBS opponent. It’s also worth noting the Cavaliers have had success against the pass as well, and combined the UVA defense has been a top 25 unit in total defense (326.0 yards allowed per game), though opponents have averaged 5.31 yards per play, which ranks 49th.
3. Playmaking receivers
Though both teams like to establish the run, Perkins and Elliott each have talented playmakers at receiver. Virginia wideout Olamide Zaccheaus is tied for the lead in the ACC with six TD catches and he ranks second with 46 receptions, which have gone for 582 yards. Zaccheaus, who ranks fifth in the league with an average of 83.1 receiving yards per game, has three 100-yard receiving performances this season, including a school-record 247 yards against Ohio.
North Carolina receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams also ranks in the top 10 in the ACC in receiving (59.0 yards per game). The junior has tallied 354 yards on 25 receptions, two of which have gone for touchdowns. Teammate Dazz Newsome has also caught 25 passes this year, which have gone for 271 yards and a TD. Newsome, who also scored on a punt return last week against Syracuse, set a career high with 110 yards in the win over Pitt.
At 1-5 overall, and with one regularly scheduled non-conference game canceled earlier this season, this is a must-win game for North Carolina. The Tar Heels have shown improvement in recent weeks, both running the football and stopping the run, which should give the team some confidence — but it could be a case of too little, too late. Virginia has a well-rounded offense and a more impressive (though also susceptible) defense according to the numbers. Plus, the Cavaliers are highly motivated; if Virginia wins, it will be bowl eligible. If the Cavaliers win out, UVA will earn a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
Prediction: Virginia 31, North Carolina 17
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.