When Virginia Tech heads to North Carolina this Saturday, it will be their second visit to the Research Triangle in two weeks. Their first trip was very successful as they beat up Duke 31-14. But the Hokies' game at home last weekend was not quite as enjoyable. Notre Dame took what was a close game at halftime and turned it into a rout with 28 points in the final 30 minutes.
But North Carolina fans look at that outcome and think, “I wish things were only that bad.” The Heels stumble into their matchup with Virginia Tech at 1-3 after an excruciatingly ugly loss at Miami. All that could go wrong did in the 47-10 Hurricanes victory.
The Hokies have won 11 of the last 14 meetings and hold a 21-10-4 series edge.
Virginia Tech at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Virginia Tech -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Virginia Tech running backs vs. North Carolina rush defense
It's been the same for three years: North Carolina has to figure out a way to stop the run. They rank 114th in that category so far this season and Miami went for 229 yards in that Thursday night debacle. Virginia Tech had its moments on the ground against Notre Dame, but finished with just 132 yards. They are a middle-of-the-road running team so far this season, having success against the weaker teams and struggling against better competition. With Ryan Willis now at quarterback, Tech will need production from running backs Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease, and Carolina's defense is the perfect fix for any team's running game.
2. North Carolina ball security
Down 7-3 in the first quarter, North Carolina’s Nathan Elliott was sacked, fumbled, and Miami’s Jonathan Garvin returned it for a score. Then, midway through the second period, with UNC trailing 17-10, new quarterback Chazz Surratt threw a terrible pass right to Miami defensive end Joe Jackson, who took it 42 yards for a touchdown. Unfortunately, this has been a pattern for the Tar Heels. They are losing the turnover battle by an average of minus-two per game. In their lone victory, a 38-35 win over Pittsburgh, turnovers were not surprisingly a wash, making the turnover margin in the three losses look really bad. Virginia Tech has an opportunistic defense and UNC must value the football on Saturday night.
3. Virginia Tech defensive pressure
Notre Dame put up 45 points on Virginia Tech, but the Hokies did produce a number of negative plays, especially in the first half. They had nine tackles for lost yardage on the night, two of them being sacks. Interestingly, for all of their woes, North Carolina has only allowed four sacks on the year — which is tied for sixth nationally — and their 30 tackles for lost yardage allowed isn’t all that bad either. But as noted, they still make mistakes. Tech defensive end Houshon Gaines and his friends will look to force miscues by turning up the heat this week.
There is a lot of uncertainty at Carolina, starting — but certainly not ending — with the quarterback position. By this point in time, Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora had hoped that Chazz Surratt would have taken control of the offense. But he made a bad choice off the field that led to his suspension, made poor decisions when he returned to action, and now he's out for the rest of the season because a wrist injury that required surgery. So Nathan Elliott will continue to run the offense. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, was stung by last week’s second half performance. But from an ACC perspective, the Hokies are still in good shape with a 2-0 record and quarterback Ryan Willis’ impressive start to his Tech career. With several winnable games on the horizon, a run could be coming. If it does, it starts this week with a solid victory in Chapel Hill.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, North Carolina 21
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.