The Virginia Tech football team may be back on the rise in the ACC, but the team’s impending matchup with the North Carolina Tar Heels will determine how competitive the Hokies will actually be in the Coastal Division.
The Tar Heels embarrassed the Hokies in Chapel Hill last season, stomping Tech 48-34, so Frank Beamer and company are looking for redemption in this one.
The Hokies scored a big win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to make a statement in the division, but they’ll need another win over UNC to truly take command.
The Heels may be just 1-3 on the year, but Larry Fedora’s fast-paced spread offense always presents a challenge.
This may be a lightly regarded ACC match, but there are still four big storylines to watch headed into the game.
Foster’s Defense Takes on the Spread
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has cooked up another dominant defense, but the group will be tested against UNC’s spread.
Tech’s defense is currently fourth in the country in yards allowed, and they’ve accomplished this while playing a pair of spread teams in the East Carolina Pirates and the Marshall Thundering Herd.
Although Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato’s mobility gave the defense fits at times, Foster’s bunch largely shut down both teams’ offenses.
Last year, the Hokies were helpless to stop former UNC running back Giovani Bernard due to poor defensive line play and even worse tackling.
Just watch the way Bernard shreds the Hokies on a draw play last year.
The line fails to control their gaps, and the linebackers have overcommitted to the wrong side of the field.
That won’t happen again this year.
On this play against Marshall, the line stays in their gaps, and the linebackers are perfectly positioned to wrap up running back Essray Taliaferro.
UNC has had real trouble running the ball this year, averaging just a little over 100 yards per game, and that should continue against Tech.
If the Hokies’ deep secondary can hold up against UNC quarterback Bryn Renner, then the defense should have no trouble handling the Heels.
Thomas Finding Confidence
Quarterback Logan Thomas looked like a competent, confident quarterback against Georgia Tech.
That’s a version of Thomas that teams haven’t seen since 2011.
Last year, the passer was prone to rushing his throws and taking off running far too quickly.
Against the Jackets, he was able to calmly sit in the pocket, even in the face of pressure, to make big plays, like this one to Demitri Knowles.
Now, Thomas gets to go up against a UNC secondary that’s looked particularly vulnerable recently.
The Heels are currently allowing 225 passing yards per game, a mark that puts them 60th in the country in pass defense.
The unit looked especially shaky last week; the Heels allowed 55 points to the Pirates, including 376 yards through the air.
Thomas has already started to find his stride, but facing UNC’s weak secondary could help him become downright dangerous throwing the ball.
Restoration of the Running Game?
Virginia Tech’s rushing attack looked like it was starting to really come together against Marshall, as they put 201 running yards on the board.
Then, the unit could only manage 55 yards on the ground against the Jackets.
Thomas accounted for 58 of those yards, while the running backs could only muster one measly yard: losses eliminated four yards from the team’s total.
It was a disappointing result to say the least, and Frank Beamer wasn’t shy about saying so.
Frank Beamer: "At this particular time, I think we're a little bit better at throwing the football than running the football." #Hokies— Hokies Journal (@HokiesJournal) September 30, 2013
But, much like Thomas in the passing game, the rushing attack could be in for a big game against the struggling Heels.
UNC is currently 113th in the nation in run defense, allowing over 234 yards per game.
They let the Pirates pile up 227 yards on the ground last week, and Tech running back Trey Edmunds could be the beneficiary.
Edmunds had his worst game of the season last week, accounting for one yard on six carries. However, he’s averaging 70.6 yards per game, so he’s clearly no slouch.
If he can take advantage of UNC’s shoddy defense, then the offense will have no trouble keeping up with the Heels’ spread attack.
Coastal Division Implications
Virginia Tech may be just one game into its ACC schedule, but the team is already eyeing the Coastal Division title.
The team is tops in the division right now with its 1-0 ACC record, and the win over the Jackets gives it a much-needed tiebreaker over Georgia Tech.
The Jackets are 2-1 in the conference, but the Miami Hurricanes are the real threat.
The Hurricanes open their ACC slate by facing the Jackets, and as ESPN’s David Hale points out, it will be a hugely important conference game.
The Yellow Jackets couldn't find an answer to the Hokies' defensive scheme, and they're now faced with a showdown against undefeated Miami in South Florida. A second conference loss -- both to teams ahead of them in the standings -- would likely spell doom for the Jackets' hopes of returning to the ACC championship game. Miami, meanwhile, needs to keep pace with the resurgent Hokies, and Georgia Tech promises a far bigger test than the Hurricanes have gotten in the past two weeks, when they beat Savannah State and USF by a combined 126-28.
Miami will likely have no trouble with the flailing Jackets, which puts quite the burden on the Hokies to keep up.
UNC may have struggled early, but they’re still a formidable team. If the Hokies were to fall to 1-1 in the ACC, there would be very little margin for error for Tech going forward.
From the Tar Heels’ perspective, this game is equally important. The team may have a poor record, but a win in Blacksburg would raise their conference record to 1-1.
The Heels would likely still be looking up at the Hurricanes, but that’s much closer than they are right now.
Overall, this game is huge for both teams, but contains real breakout potential for the Hokies.
The country already had a chance to see what this team can do in the Thursday night game against Georgia Tech. If the Hokies can make another big statement over a Coastal foe, they’ll put real pressure on Miami and announce themselves as ACC heavyweights.
Beamer and company want to go back to the ACC Championship, and if Tech can pull off the win here, their road will be considerably easier.