North Carolina (6-4 overall, 2-4 ACC) faces a significant challenge on the road Thursday night, as they face off against Virginia Tech (9-1 overall, 5-1 ACC) in an important game with conference and bowl implications.
Virginia Tech can wrap up the ACC's Coastal Division with a win over UNC and a Virginia loss to Tallahassee on Saturday, while the Tar Heels can guarantee a winning season for the fourth straight season, while improving their bowl situation, by pulling off the team's second win in a row in Blacksburg.
WON ON THE GROUND
For better or for worse, this game for North Carolina will be won or lost on the ground. The Tar Heels have the running back in Giovani Bernard to keep Virginia Tech's defense honest. If Bernard can't be productive---and for the most part he wasn't in Raleigh although he surpassed the 1,000-yard threshold---UNC has virtually no chance to beat this Hokie team. If Bernard is limited, the Hokies will pin their ears back and make Bryn Renner's night a disaster, much like NCSU did.
On the flip side, UNC's defense has the challenge of trying to deal with Virginia Tech's David Wilson, who is first in the ACC in yards per game. Both he and Bernard are averaging over 100 yards per game, and whichever one has the better game on Thursday has to tilt at least some of the game projection in that team's favor. UNC did a tremendous job stuffing the run the last time they were in Blacksburg, and many of those same players, including Tydreke Powell, Quinton Coples, and Kevin Reddick, will be out there again.
It's just hard to see Carolina having much chance unless they force Virginia Tech to beat them at times through the air. If the Hokies can, they'll line it up and pound Wilson and Josh Oglesby, among others, at them all night. UNC must make the Hokies do something in the passing game to put up a realistic fight.
Thursday night's environment in Lane Stadium, while intimidating, shouldn't be totally unique to this Tar Heel team. As stated above, many of the same players who helped Carolina win in Blacksburg two years ago are playing again tonight, and the team just in the past month has played in challenging spots like Death Valley and Raleigh's Carter-Finley Stadium. The UNC players should be jacked up knowing they're playing on national television, and for those veterans like Dwight Jones and several defenders, it's a great chance to go out and showcase yourself to NFL franchises. But the key to staying close and beating Virginia Tech on their home field is poise. When UNC won up there two years ago, they were incredibly stoic and honed-in as a team. They played a full game for four quarters, and made enough plays to put themselves in position to win.
For Carolina, it's really important to harness and that energy and excitement that comes from a night game against a big-time opponent. Be excited and jacked up, but don't commit a late hitting penalty on a defensive play or special teams play just because you're excited to be on the field. Don't take a late shot on quarterback Logan Thomas or anyone else. Stay focused on the task at hand, and don't get caught up in the moment or the atmosphere. Virginia Tech is a good enough team without UNC doing them any favors.
IMPROVEMENT UP FRONT
UNC's offensive line has to be more focused and determined than they were in Raleigh. For some reason, the talented collection of linemen fell apart against the Wolfpack. That game is over and gone, but this game could be a nightmarish repeat of that game unless they're really ready go go. The Hokies have one of the better defensive lines in all of college football, so this is going to be a challenge under the best of circumstances for the Tar Heels.
For this entire group of linemen---many of which were highly-regarded recruits in high school---this situation should be exciting. They should be particularly determined to play well given the opponent, and to make amends for what happened earlier this month in Raleigh. They've had an extra five days to get ready with the bye week. The entire starting unit is healthy, which hasn't always been the case this fall. There's really no excuses for this unit. They need to play tonight if Carolina's to have a shot.
COMMUNICATION ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Against a Virginia Tech team that is well known for capitalizing on opponents mistakes---particularly on special teams---UNC's coverage units have to be in synch with one another to avoid things like missed blocks on punts and field goals, as well as allowing gaps to spread open in punt and kickoff coverage. The Hokies are notorious for game-changing blocked punts, and UNC's punt team has been sketchy at times this fall. This is a particularly glaring thing that won't be an issue Thursday night until its an issue. And then it's too late.
Carolina's punt team has to be smart, be together, and make sure that they meet their individual responsibilities. If a Virginia Tech player jumps a gap or twists or whatever, don't overcompensate. Conduct your block and communicate. UNC's punt coverage team has to play within itself and avoid individual heroism over sound fundamentals. With weather potentially being a factor on Thursday night, a key miscue on special teams by either one of these squads could make a real difference. UNC has to make sure they're not helping the Hokies out by being generous on such a play.
The UNC quarterback gets his own key this week because it's hard to imagine the Tar Heels giving the Hokies a game without him having one of his best performances of the season. And that doesn't have to necessarily mean passing yards against a VT secondary that has gotten better and better over the course of the season. It mostly means making good decisions. Renner cannot afford to launch a ball high into the wind---and there could be wind swirling in Lane Stadium tonight. The ball he threw early in the NCSU game that hung and hung before getting picked off could have been avoided. Renner has to be aware of his surroundings and know that sometimes its okay to check off and hit that second or third read in the progression.
Much has been said about the 'concussion-like symptoms' Renner suffered in the NCSU game November 5, and he perhaps benefitted most from the bye last week. UNC would have faced a pretty scary scenario going to Blacksburg with Renner having missed much of the game-week preparations. But as it stands, Renner got extra time to heal up, and then a typical game week of practice---at least as typical as a game week can be when you play on Thursday night. The bottom line is that Renner is going to again be the guy for Carolina, and he has to be the guy. He's shown he's got the talent to move the football down the field. And here's a great opportunity to show America. Now let's see it.
MIXING IT UP
Everyone in the stadium tonight who knows anything about UNC knows that they're going to try and get Dwight Jones the ball? And why not, along with Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Wake Forest's Chris Givens, he's been one of the more productive receivers in the Atlantic Coast Conference this fall. But this game cannot be won by Jones alone. Jones is clearly Renner's favorite target, and teams have rolled coverages in an effort to slow him down. Jones has been making his catches, but there have been games where hardly anyone else made any impact among Carolina's receiving corps.
It's really important tonight that multiple players make plays for UNC in the passing game. Junior Jheranie Boyd, who scored a touchdown the last time Carolina was in Lane Stadium, has to show up to play tonight. He and Erik Highsmith have to take some pressure of both Jones and Renner. Boyd in particular has been non-existent at times this season, and his dropped pass in the NCSU game on what would have been a surefire first down could have helped the Tar Heels establish some much-needed momentum in that game. Boyd can't afford to have any key drops when his number gets called tonight. Boyd may also get a play or two on the end-around, and it will be important on those plays that he finds some space.
In addition to the receivers, UNC needs production tonight from players like tight ends Nelson Hurst and Eric Ebron, as well as H-back Christian Wilson. It may only be one catch, but if that catch gets Virginia Tech out of position and opens something else up, it's totally worth it.
For North Carolina offensive coordinator John Shoop, this game in Blacksburg is as much an audition for future coaching jobs as it is anything else. It's abundantly clear given all the things that have happened that Shoop is winding down his tenure at UNC, and surely he wants to put up a big-time effort Thursday night not only for his players and for the program, but also to show potential employers out there what he can do.
There's arguably nothing Shoop can do on Thursday night to help his team's chances than to mix up a successful running game with effective passing to several different receivers. Of course Shoop can't be on the field and execute the plays he calls, but he has to figure out a way to spread the ball all over to many people. No one man is going to be able to beat Virginia Tech single-handedly---not even Dwight Jones or Giovani Bernard, talented as they are. So UNC needs to work the ball to more people and create some situations where Virginia Tech is out of position.