Don’t bite the cheese. That has been the message for the Tar Heels this week as they prepare to host a struggling Virginia team in the latest edition of the South’s Oldest Rivalry. The Tar Heels have raced out to a 6-0 start for just the sixth time in school history and have a tough finish to the season, but they can’t overlook the Cavaliers in this one on Saturday.
The team enters this game off of their biggest win of the season last weekend against Miami, their fifth over a Power 5 team by double digits so far this year. Quarterback Drake Maye is rolling after his early season issues with interceptions and has himself back in the thick of the Heisman race after back-to-back games with four total touchdowns. It shouldn’t be considered a coincidence that those games have come with Tez Walker on the field after he was declared eligible by the NCAA a couple of weeks ago. Walker is coming off an outstanding performance against Miami where he found the endzone three times and showed why the staff was so excited about him in the preseason. He teams with Nate McCollum and J.J. Jones to form an extremely productive wide receiving corps that should be fine without Kobe Paysour, who is out indefinitely with a broken toe. The tight end group hasn’t been nearly as productive as many thought it would be coming into the season, but all three, especially Bryson Nesbit, have stepped up when needed. Another group that has stepped up when needed this year has been the running back room. Sophomore Omarion Hampton has taken over the bulk of the carries and is coming off his second game with more than 200 yards from scrimmage this season. The offensive line has been boosted by the return of Willie Lampkin from his lower-body injury and the emergence of Diego Pounds at left tackle.
On the other side of the ball, the Tar Heels have a unit that they can trust for the first time in a while. It all starts up front where Bednarik Award watch list member Kaimon Rucker and a trio of others have been getting pressure off the edge all season long. In the middle, Myles Murphy’s reemergence the last two weeks has led to more success stopping after struggling to do so early on. Midseason AP All-American Power Echols and Cedric Gray continue to hold it down in the middle with fantastic performances week in and week out and have really made strides in coverage that has allowed them to improve on what they did last season.
The defensive backfield has been picked apart at times this season and is coming off of a rough performance against Miami. Still, this unit is vastly improved thanks to Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen proving to be reliable corners and Don Chapman and Giovanni Biggers being more consistent at safety.
The special teams unit has been a bit of a mess this season. The kick coverage unit has been one of the worst in the entire country so far this year and the punt unit has already allowed two punts to be blocked. The kick return unit has been incredibly quiet so far this year and has had the challenge of finding a replacement for George Pettaway midseason after the dynamic returner from a year ago decided to sit out the rest of the season and redshirt. It isn’t all bad, though. After being forced into duty for the Minnesota game, Noah Burnette has responded to the challenge and is perfect on field goals so far in four games. Punt returner Alijah Huzzie has also had a great season, highlighted by the big game against Pittsburgh.
While the Tar Heels have won five games against Power 5 opponents, the Cavaliers are still searching for their first win against an FBS opponent. The team’s lone win came in a game against William & Mary that they had to come from behind in to avoid being winless heading into this one. Offensively, the Cavaliers passing game is the only element of the team that is downright atrocious. Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett started the season at quarterback, but got banged up in the opener. He has returned to split time with Anthony Colandrea, who showed some nice flashes when he was starting but turned the ball over a lot. Whoever is out there at quarterback will have the luxury of throwing to two receivers who already have over 400 receiving yards, including the conference’s leading receiver, Malik Washington. The team’s running game remains a weakness, averaging less than 100 yards a game with the duo of Kobe Pace and Perris Jones leading the way. The offensive line has had a really rough season, ranking near the bottom of the country in tackles for loss and sacks allowed.
Defensively, the team has struggled to keep opponents off the board. The secondary is the strength of the unit with cornerback Coen King and safety Jonas Sanker having really strong seasons. That really is where the good stops for this defense. The defensive line had Kameron Butler, who was off to a great start, but he is done for the season with a torn pec leaving them with a group that simply struggles to win at the point of attack. The linebacker room led by James Jackson has had a rough season, especially when it comes to stopping the run.
The special teams unit has not been great either. Punter Daniel Sparks has been solid, as has Will QC Bettridge, but the return games have had a rough go of it. Both of the team’s coverage units also rank amongst the worst in the country.
Off. PPG: 37.3 (T-15th)
Off. PYPG: 317.0 (12th)
Off. RYPG: 184.3 (37th)
Off. TYPG: 501.3 (8th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 52.8% (8th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 38.0 (T-80th)
Sacks Allowed: 16.0 (T-91st)
Def. PPG: 21.0 (T-44th)
Def. PYPG: 245.8 (95th)
Def. RYPG: 113.8 (30th)
Def. TYPG: 359.7 (55th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 35.1% (44th)
Tackles for A Loss: 35.0 (T-83rd)
Sacks: 16.0 (T-49th)
Interceptions: 9 (T-8th)
Turnover Margin: +7 (T-9th)
Penalties Per Game: 6.5 (79th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 64.5 (112th)
Off. PPG: 22.3 (106th)
Off. PYPG: 249.3 (T-49th)
Off. RYPG: 99.5 (122nd)
Off. TYPG: 348.8 (99th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 35.3% (102nd)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 47.0 (T-110th)
Sacks Allowed: 22.0 (T-116th)
Def. PPG: 31.8 (T-112th)
Def. PYPG: 202.8 (35th)
Def. RYPG: 177.0 (107th)
Def. TYPG: 379.8 (73rd)
Def. 3rd Down %: 41.5% (94th)
Tackles for Loss: 29.0 (T-116th)
Sacks: 5.0 (T-132nd)
Interceptions: 3 (T-107th)
Turnover Margin: -3 (T-98th)
Penalties Per Game: 6.7 (T-87th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 56.0 (85th)
Keys to the Game
Run the Ball Early
This was something that the team failed to do early against Miami, but that they have to do early in this one. The Cavaliers have proven they can’t stop the run so far this season and the Tar Heels have done damage against teams with their running game when they have truly committed to it this season. The strategy should be to run the ball early and often until the Cavaliers give you a reason not to.
Get After the Quarterback
Without the threat of a running game, the Tar Heels should be able to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. They will need to get pressure in the face of these quarterbacks, regardless of who’s in there, to avoid getting picked apart like they have been at times this season. If they do get home, which shouldn’t be too much to ask against this struggling Cavaliers offensive night, turnovers could be there for the taking again for this defense that has capitalized on those chances often so far this season.
Don’t Get Comfortable
This game feels a lot like last year's game with Georgia Tech in Kenan Stadium and the Tar Heels need to remember that game and use it as a learning tool for this one. Many may forget that they were up by 17 early in that game and feeling good before everything fell apart around them. If the Tar Heels do jump on the Cavaliers early, which is the hope, they need to keep their foot on the gas.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Ben Kiernan (lower body), Kobe Paysour (lower body), George Pettaway (redshirt), Julien Randolph (lower body)
QUEST- Ryan Coe (lower body), Travis Shaw (upper body)
OUT- Olasunkonmi Agunloye (knee), Xavier Brown (arm), Kam Butler (pec), Antonio Clary (ankle), Demick Starling (redshirt)
QUEST- Paul Akere (knee), Mike Hollins (knee), Langston Long (foot)
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Time: 6:30 PM
TV: The CW
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)