In what turned out to be a disastrous weekend for the ACC Coastal Division, Virginia Tech and North Carolina each put forth lackluster performances at home, sending doubts cascading through their fan bases. But this Saturday, one of the two will get back in the win column as they meet up at Kenan Stadium.
The Hokies were within six points of West Virginia entering the fourth quarter before the Mountaineers scored the game's final 17 points for a 33-10 victory in Blacksburg last Thursday night. As for the Tar Heels, they were abused up front on both sides of the ball in their 45-32 loss to Notre Dame this past Saturday.
While North Carolina is 3-1 and Virginia Tech is 2-2, this is an important divisional game for UNC because Tech is 1-0 in the league thanks to their Week 2 victory over Boston College.
Virginia Tech at North Carolina
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
The Hokies haven't been able to move the ball on anyone this season, and North Carolina's defense hasn't put up any resistance in their four games. So in a weird way, this could be the most intriguing aspect of the contest.
It's hard to find many positives in either of these units, but in Keshawn King, Virginia Tech has a running back that has flashed potential. The junior has 179 yards in the three games that he has played, piling up 111 in the opener against Old Dominion and following that up with 64 on just four carries versus Boston College. But last Thursday, West Virginia shut King and the running game down completely as the Hokies managed a paltry 228 yards of total offense.
And as for the passing game, it's been ugly. In games against FBS competition, quarterback Grant Wells has completed just 55 percent of his attempts with three touchdowns against five interceptions. While Wells has not been great, the receiving group, despite having a big-play threat in Caleb Smith and a solid tight end in Nick Gallo, has to step up to aid the quarterback. The line has not allowed many sacks, but Wells has been pressured and they need to better job in the running game.
As for the Carolina defense, the frustrating part is that the unit has talent. Cedric Gray and Power Echols are athletic linebackers, and the secondary, featuring Storm Duck and Tony Grimes, has a lot of experience. But the unit ranks last in the ACC in rushing yards and passing yards allowed through the first quarter of the season. They are learning a new system under coordinator Gene Chizik, but that excuse is wearing thinner and thinner with each poor performance. This week, the Tar Heels have to simplify things and pick one aspect to focus on, and that should be to stop King and the Tech ground game. If they can't accomplish that goal, it will be another long day for the defense.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Flipping things around, the production is much different for both teams. The Tar Heels have the nation's eighth-ranked scoring offense and have scored at least 32 points in every game, while Virginia Tech is 10th in total defense. The key to the Carolina attack is Drake Maye, the redshirt freshman quarterback who was getting a little Heisman talk before last week's game against Notre Dame. Maye has completed 69 percent of his throws, averaging 9.5 yards per attempt, and has posted a 16:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Much of that production has come without star receiver Josh Downs, who returned from a knee injury this past week. Antoine Green also was back and had two big chunk receptions for scores. But what UNC failed to do against Notre Dame was run the ball. After amassing over 180 yards on the ground in each of their first three games, the Heels were held to just 66 yards by the Irish. Freshman Omarion Hampton has emerged as the No. 1 tailback, and his effectiveness will determine how successful Carolina will be moving the ball.
The reason Notre Dame was able to stifle the run is that the Irish won the battles up front all game long. This is something that the Hokies are capable of doing as well. Defensive end TyJuan Garbutt and linebacker Dax Hollifield headline a rugged defensive front that will make things difficult for the Carolina offensive line. However, West Virginia beat the Hokies last week because they ran for 218 yards. The secondary has done a good job of not allowing home runs, but if Virginia Tech has difficulties stopping the run, Maye and the Heels will strike deep as Chamarri Conner and Nasir Peoples sneak up into the box.
Because it is strength against strength and weakness against weakness, this should be a fun watch on Saturday afternoon. If the Virginia Tech offense can't move the ball on the Carolina defense, it's hard to see how they can have success against anyone. And the same holds true for the Heels. If they can't slow down the Hokies, who can they stop? The Virginia Tech defense is good, but Maye will be the difference in this game. Notre Dame held UNC to 100 yards below their previous season low, but the Tar Heels still put 32 on the board thanks to some big plays. I don't think the Hokies can do much better than the Irish, and while they should improve offensively, scoring that many points is unlikely. North Carolina will take care of Virginia Tech and open the ACC schedule with a win.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Virginia Tech 24
Podcast: Week 5 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
*Price as of publication.