Heel Tough Blog: Virginia Preview

Updated: Nov 12


Bob Donnan- USA Today Sports

There are very few things that Mack Brown has yet to do in his 34 years as a head coach. Believe it or not, beating the Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville is one of those things. In his six trips there as the Tar Heels head coach, he has never been able to come out with a victory. On Saturday he will look to take home that first victory in Scott Stadium and put himself on the doorstep of an ACC Coastal title.


Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

The team has to be thrilled with where they are heading into this game in terms of how this season has gone, but there is a litany of injuries to navigate in the final few weeks of the year. Offensively, the team has to navigate the remainder of the season without Caleb Hood, who had solidified himself as the team’s lead back in the few weeks prior to his upper-body injury. In his absence, the team will now count on Elijah Green and Omarion Hampton to carry the load with a little bit of D.J. Jones and George Pettaway sprinkled in. Green will likely be the starter as he looks to become this year’s version of British Brooks, who sparked the team out of the backfield a year ago late in the season. Regardless of if someone emerges at running back, Drake Maye makes this Tar Heel offense one of the best in the country. Last week, he put himself firmly in the Heisman race with yet another career performance and he seems to improve every single time he takes the field. That’s what has him leading the country in total offense and total touchdowns and what has this offense reaching that it never has before under the direction of Phil Longo. He is being aided by one of the best receiving duos in the country right now in Josh Downs and Antoine Green, who a week ago became the first tandem in Tar Heel history to record two straight games where each guy went over 100 yards. They combined with the tremendous depth at the receiver spot and a group of tight ends that are finally breaking out to form one of the best passing games in the nation. The offense has been boosted by an offensive line that has shown significant improvement from last year thanks to guys like Asim Richards, who has become one of the best left tackles in the ACC.

Defensively, this team has given people a reason to feel a little bit more confident with what they have done in conference. The bend-don't break mentality that we’ve wanted to see from this unit has shown up in recent weeks. The defensive front is the most beat up unit on the entire team right now with three starters from the unit out for the season including both edge rushers. The good news is that some of the backups have shown some nice promise led by Kaimon Rucker, who is being monitored this week but seems to be trending towards playing. Jahvaree Ritzie and Kevin Hester Jr. are coming off strong performances a week ago, as well, and should also be big parts of what the team does moving forward. The linebacker tandem of Cedric Gray and Power Echols have been the most consistent part of this defense this season and RaRa Dillworth will also enter this game off a career performance against Pittsburgh, giving the Tar Heels some stronger depth there than they’ve had so far this season. The secondary remains the biggest concern on the team even with all of the injuries. The group has been picked apart all season in the middle of the field because of the struggles at safety, but Don Chapman provided just a bit of promise last week and should see more reps moving forward. At corner, Tony Grimes and Strom Duck remain hit and miss, but have been much better than they were to begin the season. Still, this is the reason that some have trust issues with this defense holding up.

The special teams are living up to what the staff has been striving for on a yearly basis. Ben Kiernan has simply be fantastic this season as the team’s punter and Noah Burnette has proven to be fairly reliable so far this year. While the coverage units have struggled a bit, the return units have proven to be very solid so far this season.

Virginia

The Cavaliers are in the midst of their first year under new head coach Tony Elliot and are the polar opposite of what they were in 2021. After boasting a historic passing game a year ago, their offense is one of the worst in all of college football. Brennan Armstrong was one of the conferences best quarterbacks a year ago, but has come back to Earth this season and is really struggling right now. His efficiency has take a major blow this season and to pile on top of those issues, he comes into Saturday’s matchup hobbled by an injury that had him in the medical tent for an extended period of time last week. His receiving corps entered the season as arguably the best in the conference, but hasn’t lived up to that billing by any stretch so far. Dontayvion Wicks has been sold, but some thought he could be headed towards All-ACC honors entering the season. Keytaon Thompson is the receiver to be aware of on Saturday, as he is in the midst of a really solid season for himself and he torched the Tar Heels a year ago. The biggest reason that this group has struggled this year in the passing game, though, is how bad there offensive line has been. Starting tackle Logan Taylor grades out as the worst offensive lineman in the conference according to Pro Football Focus and he is part of a starting line that has seen all five players allowed double-digit pressure this season. They are also a big part of why the running game that has been inept for a while remains that way. Starting running back Perris Jones will most likely be inactive for this game on Saturday, leaving it in the hands of group of backs that haven’t produced at a high level this season or in the past.

Meanwhile on the defensive side of the ball, Elliot’s staff has flipped the fortunes for a team that had one of the worst units in the country a year ago. The team is currently tied for eighth in the country in sacks thanks in large part to the defensive line that become a strength. Chico Bennett Jr. is the standout that the Tar Heels will have to find a way to control, but across the board, this group has been productive so far this year. At linebacker, Nick Jackson holds things in the middle and may be the unit’s best player with the ways that they use him. He sits second on the team in sacks and could be another guy that the Tar Heels will see coming on blitzes, something they’ve seen a lot of the last two weeks. The Virginia secondary was bludgened constantly last year, but they have taken a major step this season. Both Fentrell Cypress and Anthony Johnson have had strong seasons and will tough to go after on Saturday and the safeties have shown much more then they did in 2021.

Special teams has been a rollercoaster for the Cavaliers this year. At placekicker, the team has found some stability with Will Bettridge after Brendan Farrell’s early season fits, while the search for a stable kick and punt return continues. The most consistent part of the unit is well-traveled punter Daniel Sparks, who has had a very solid first season with the team after two transfers.



Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 41.8 (T-6th)

Off. PYPG: 334.4 (6th)

Off. RYPG: 167.6 (55th)

Off. TYPG: 502.0 (8th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 50.0 (T-14th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 47.0 (T-80th)

Sacks Allowed: 19.0 (T-85th)

Def. PPG: 31.4 (110th)

Def. PYPG: 283.3 (122nd)

Def. RYPG: 179.4 (103rd)

Def. TYPG: 462.6 (122nd)

Def. 3rd Down %: 41.4 (88th)

Tackles for A Loss: 34.0 (T-123rd)

Sacks: 13.0 (T-97th)

Interceptions: 5 (T-88th)

Turnover Margin: 0 (T-68th)

Penalties Per Game: 7.0 (T-95th)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 61.0 (95th)

Virginia

Off. PPG: 16.9 (123rd)

Off. PYPG: 228.3 (79th)

Off. RYPG: 131.6 (91st)

Off. TYPG: 359.9 (T-93rd)

Off. 3rd Down %: 31.5 (116th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 56.0 (T-104th)

Sacks Allowed: 25.0 (T-108th)

Def. PPG: 21.5 (T-30th)

Def. PYPG: 192.9 (24th)

Def. RYPG: 147.6 (73rd)

Def. TYPG: 340.5 (31st)

Def. 3rd Down %: 34.7% (40th)

Tackles for A Loss: 45.0 (T-76th)

Sacks: 26.0 (T-9th)

Interceptions: 5 (T-88th)

Turnover Margin: -6 (T-111th)

Penalties Per Game: 7.6 (T-112th)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 71.3 (117th)


Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- British Brooks (lower leg), Sebastian Cheeks (upper body), Des Evans (upper body), Caleb Hood (upper body), Jahlil Taylor (lower body), Noah Taylor (lower body), Raymond Vohasek (upper body)

QUEST- Kaimon Rucker (upper body), Bryson Nesbit (upper body)

PROB- Ja’Qurious Conley (lower body)

Virginia

OUT- Amaad Forston (knee), Malachi Fields (foot), Ronnie Walker Jr. (lower body)

DOUBT- Perris Jones (ankle)

QUEST- Josh Ahren (hamstring), Brennan Armstrong (leg)




Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB#10 Drake Maye, RFr.

RB#21 Elijah Green, So. OR #28 Omarion Hampton, Fr.

WR# 5 J.J. Jones, So.

WR# 3 Antoine Green, Sr.

WR#11 Josh Downs, Jr.

TE#88 Kamari Morales, Jr. OR #18 Bryson Nesbit, So. OR #81 John Copenhaver, So.

LT#72 Asim Richards, Sr.

LG#63 Ed Montilus, Sr,

C#65 Corey Gaynor, Sr.

RG#76 William Barnes, Sr.

RT#75 Spencer Rolland, Sr. Defense

NOSE#98 Kevin Hester Jr., Jr.

3-TECH# 8 Myles Murphy, Jr.

END#25 Kaimon Rucker, Jr.

JACK#17 Chris Collins, Sr.

MIKE#23 Power Echols, So.

ILB#33 Cedric Gray, Jr.

CB# 1 Tony Girmes, Jr.

BS#27 Giovanni Biggers, Sr.

FS# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, Sr.

CB# 3 Storm Duck, Jr.

STAR#16 DeAndre Boykins, So. Special Teams

K#98 Noah Burnette, So.

KOS#98 Noah Burnette, So.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, Sr.

LS K- #62 Spencer Triplett, So. P- #61 Drew Little, Sr.

H#91 Ben Kiernan, Sr.

KR#28 Omarion Hampton, Fr.

PR#11 Josh Downs, Jr.


Virginia Offense

QB# 5 Brennan Armstrong, Sr.

RB# 7 Mike Hollins, Jr.

WR# 3 Dontayvion Wicks, Jr.

WR#99 Keytaon Thompson, Sr. OR # 4 Billy Kemp IV, Sr.

WR#1 Lavel Davis, Jr.

TE#85 Grant Misch, Sr.

LT#69 Logan Taylor, So.

LG#76 John Paul Flores, Sr.

C#78 Jestus Johnson, So.

RG#67 Derek Devine, Sr.

RT#65 Jonathan Leech, Sr. Defense

DE#82 Kam Butler, Sr.

NT#90 Jahmeer Carter, Jr.

DT#94 Aaron Faumui, Sr.

BANDIT#15 Chico Bennett Jr., Sr.

MIKE# 6 Nick Jackson, Sr.

WILL# 7 James Jackson, So.

LC#23 Fentrell Cypress, Jr.

RC# 3 Anthony Johnson, Sr.

SPUR#20 Jonas Sanker, So.

FS# 9 Coen King, Sr.

SS# 0 Antonio Clary, Sr. Special Teams

PK#17 Will Bettridge, Fr.

KO#40 Brendan Farrell, Sr.

P#38 Daniel Sparks, Jr.

LS#45 Aiden Livingston, Sr.

H#13 Jared Rayman, Jr.

KR# 7 Mike Hollins, Jr.

PR# 4 Billy Kemp IV, Sr.


Game Information

Location: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA

Time: 12:00 PM

TV: ACC Network

Radio: Tar Heels Sports Network (check local affiliates)


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