The Virginia Tech Hokies host the North Carolina Tar Heels this Saturday in Blacksburg. The Hokies look to get revenge for last season's 48-34 loss to UNC in Chapel Hill.
In that game, the Tar Heels rushed for 339 yards, the most ever given up by a Bud Foster-coached defense. Giovani Bernard, who rushed for 262 yards in that game, is now in the NFL. The Tar Heels have just 520 yards rushing through four games in 2013.
VT is on a four-game winning streak after the Hokies defeated Georgia Tech in their ACC opener last week. Meanwhile, UNC is coming off an embarrassing 55-31 loss at home to East Carolina.
The Hokies are 4-1 on the year, 1-0 in the ACC. UNC is 1-3, 0-1 in the ACC. The teams have faced two common opponents thus far: East Carolina and Georgia Tech. The Hokies won both games, while the Tar Heels lost each game.
Virginia Tech leads the all-time series, 18-11-6. Amazingly, the schools have tied six times, with the last one occurring in 1946. Five of those ties were scoreless games. The two schools have played every season since the Hokies entered the ACC in 2004 with the Hokies winning seven of the nine meetings.
Establish Running Game
Getting the running game going against a defense as stout as the Hokies is easier said than done. They are No. 4 in the country in total defense. If UNC is going to have a chance, it needs to avoid 3rd-and-long situations against Virginia Tech's pass rush and opportunistic secondary.
The only problem for the Tar Heels? They've struggled running the ball this year. They need to run the ball early and stick with it. The only way they will make a play down the field is if they can get the Hokies to commit more defenders to the running game. That will open things up down the field. The running game can create that for UNC.
Pressure Logan Thomas
The Tar Heels may be catching Virginia Tech at a bad time. Quarterback Logan Thomas is coming off his best game. He completed 19 of 25 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 58 yards and a score. Thomas did not turn the ball over and is getting more comfortable every week.
The Tar Heels need to make him uncomfortable. With a struggling offensive line in front of him, Thomas can be pressured. UNC must blitz Thomas early to rattle him and keep him from developing a rhythm in the passing game.
Make a Play on Special Teams
UNC is struggling both offensively and defensively. If the Tar Heels are going to beat the Hokies, they need contributions from somewhere else. Virginia Tech has struggled on special teams all season. The Tar Heels haven't exactly made any big plays on special teams themselves, but there is an opportunity here and it will be up to them to take advantage of it.
Get Running Game Going
In a continuation of 2012, the Hokies are struggling to run the football. Freshman Trey Edmunds leads the Hokies with 353 yards through four games. Sophomore J.C. Coleman, the team's leading rusher last year, has missed much of the season with ankle injuries but should play more of a role in the offense this week after not touching the ball against Georgia Tech in his return.
Coleman and Edmunds are different types of runners. Both are fast, but Edmunds is much bigger and can get the tough, inside yards. Coleman is more of a threat on the edges and is good in the passing game, too.
Of course, both running backs can only go as far as the offensive line takes them. The Tar Heels should be a good team to get going against, though, considering they are 112th nationally in run defense.
Pressure Bryn Renner
North Carolina's senior quarterback was expected to have a big senior year. It has been anything but big for Renner. His stats are respectable, but he hasn't put the team on his back like most senior quarterbacks are expected to do. Not having a consistent running game has hampered Renner, too.
The Hokies have a fearsome pass rush. If they come after Renner early, they will rattle him. That should create opportunities for turnovers later in the game.
Fix the Kicking Game
Virginia Tech's kicking game has been embarrassingly bad the past three weeks. Not only did kicker Cody Journell miss three field goals (one was wiped out due to penalty) and an extra point against ECU, he struggled against Georgia Tech last week missing a 25-yard field goal that would have put the game away. The game between ECU and GT, Marshall, Journell was suspended, and his replacement, Ethan Keyserling, missed three field goals.
The Hokies play tremendous defense and struggle on offense. Taking advantage of every scoring opportunity is crucial. It will eventually cost Tech an important game.
Quarterback Bryn Renner
The Tar Heels have some talented players on offense. Sophomore receivers Quinshad Davis and T.J. Thorpe, and junior receiver Sean Tapley comprise a good unit. Tight end Eric Ebron is one of the best in the country at his position.
So why haven't they gotten it going? It's a combination of things for UNC, but Renner must step up as the team's leader and distribute the ball to his skill players. If the Tar Heels are going to turn things around in 2013, it will be up to Renner, and it must begin this week.
Tight End Eric Ebron
Ebron is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. At 6'4", and 245 pounds with good speed and soft hands, Ebron isn't a player the defense can just assign one player to. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. The Hokies need to make him the focal point of their defensive game plan. He is much more than just a safety valve for Renner.
Linebacker Norkeithus Otis
The 6'1", 240-pound Otis is all over the field. He has 20 tackles on the season, 4.5 for loss, three sacks and two passes defensed. He may not be UNC's most heralded defensive player, but he is arguably the unit's top playmaker. Keep an eye on senior safety Tre Boston, too.
Running Back J.C. Coleman
Coleman, the Hokies' leading rusher among running backs last season, was expected to be the team's starter in 2013. However, Coleman sprained both ankles in fall camp and has only played in two games thus far. He returned last week, although he didn't record a carry.
If Virginia Tech's running game is going to progress this season, it needs Coleman. He is the top big-play threat on offense and adds an extra dimension to the passing offense. His limited action last week should set him up for a big role this weekend against the Tar Heels.
Wide Receiver Demitri Knowles
Knowles had his most consistent performance of the season last week versus Georgia Tech. He caught five passes for 67 yards. Knowles showed better concentration and caught everything thrown his way. He was good in the intermediate passing game and also made a big play down the field.
Knowles is the Hokies' most talented wideout, and it was truly a matter of time before he got going. Expect him to continue to get better. In last year's game against UNC, Knowles returned a kickoff for a touchdown and caught six passes for 83 yards. He is set for a big game on Saturday.
Cornerback Antone Exum
Virginia Tech received excellent news on Monday when it was confirmed that senior cornerback Antone Exum would return to action against North Carolina. Exum, who tore his ACL in January, has been practicing for a few weeks, so his return was just a matter of time.
Bud Foster faces a bit of a logjam at the corner position with Exum's return. Senior Kyle Fuller isn't going anywhere. He is arguably playing the position as well as anyone in the country. Kyle's younger brother, Kendall, has been outstanding opposite his big brother, and VT's third corner, Brandon Facyson, has four interceptions, tied for first in the nation.
If Exum is healthy, he will return to the starting lineup. Expect Kendall Fuller to be the team's nickelback, a role he was slated for at the beginning of the season, while Facyson may play some receiver in addition to his duties at corner, according to Frank Beamer's official website.
According to the AP, UNC head coach Larry Fedora had his mind on his own team despite knowing there was a challenge ahead: "I do realize the task at hand — it will be very difficult — but right now I'm more focused on the Tar Heels than I am Virginia Tech."
Frank Beamer was very outspoken about the beating his Hokies suffered at the hands of the Tar Heels last season. He certainly isn't taking UNC lightly this weekend, despite what happened against ECU. Beamer said this, according to The Virginian-Pilot:
I can’t tell you the reason, but you better be ready to play every Saturday. We learned that last year. When you think things are about right, that’s when they’re about to go wrong, so you better be ready to play each week.
Forget what happened last year, and forget what happened last week; this weekend's game between the Hokies and Tar Heels will be a competitive one.
UNC is much better than its record indicates. Are the Tar Heels as good as last year? Probably not, but losing a player like Giovani Bernard will weaken anyone. However, expect Renner and a talented group of receivers to keep the Heels close.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, though, it just won't be able to score enough against a terrific VT defense. Logan Thomas will make some big plays in the passing game, and the Hokies will be able to run the ball better than they have in weeks and will pull away in the fourth quarter.
Virginia Tech 24, North Carolina 13