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Game Preview: #18 Virginia Tech at North Carolina
by Jeff Ouellet, 11/4/04

Saturday, November 6th, 2004, noon


Forecast (from
Click the "Chapel Hill Weather" link to the right.
Saturday noon forecast, as of 11:00 am Thursday: Sunny, 61 degrees, 0% chance of rain.

Click here for's VT/UNC roster card

Preview: #18 Virginia Tech (6-2, 3-1) at North Carolina (4-4, 3-2)
by Jeff Ouellet

As soon as the Virginia Tech football schedule is released, I peruse it with interest and generally break the games down into separate categories. This season’s clash with UNC I pegged as our “Gone Fishin’” game; namely, the game in November where the opposition was more likely to be worried about catching bass than catching footballs. There were plenty of reasons to think that way: coming into this year UNC had lost 19 of its last 24 games, including a 2-10 season last year that culminated with the Tar Heels’ first loss to Duke since Steve Spurrier roamed the Blue Devil sideline. Ironically, that loss led many to speculate that Steve Superior would be the next coach of the Heels.

However, in much the same manner as a condor rises from its own ashes (insert gong noise here), UNC (4-4, 3-2) has shown signs of life this season under fourth year coach John Bunting. The Heels have won their three conference home games against Georgia Tech (34-13), N.C. State (30-24) and, in the greatest football victory in school history, over fourth ranked Miami 31-28 last Saturday night.

Traveling this Saturday into suddenly formidable Kenan Stadium are the eighteenth ranked Hokies (6-2, 3-1) for yet another key conference clash. Suddenly a game that appeared to be a yawner has taken on new meaning for both schools. While the Hokie Nation is well aware that its team controls its own destiny for an outright conference championship and BCS birth, few have bothered to notice how this game could – I repeat could – mean a share of a conference title for UNC.

If UNC beats VT, it then closes on the road with winnable games at Wake and at Duke. Although a victory at Wake is hardly a guarantee, a UNC win over VT could propel the Heels to a 6-2 conference finish. If UNC knocked off the Hokies, there would only be two teams in the conference with a single loss, Miami and Virginia, and both face difficult schedules down the stretch. Thus, while the Heels would need some help, they not only are in the bowl picture, they also have a theoretical shot at the conference championship.

The question becomes, how did a team that was losing to William & Mary after three quarters in its season opener rehabilitate its season and rejuvenate its fan base? The answer: by relying on one of the best offenses in the conference keyed by an outstanding offensive line and an experienced quarterback.

UNC’s Offense

Before I get too much into the season statistics for the Tar Heels, I’ll make one disclaimer: the numbers generally aren’t impressive, but they are not necessarily reflective of where Carolina is right now. Remember they have played the nation’s toughest schedule thus far as six of their eight opponents were ranked when they played UNC, and seven of the eight were in bowl games last year (William & Mary is the lone exception).

Overall, the offensive numbers range from good to very good. UNC is second in the conference in total offense with nearly 393 yards per game, with 179 of those yards coming on the ground (fifth in conference) and 214 yards coming through the air (second in the conference). The scoring numbers are only average as UNC nets 25 points per game. Offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, a college football lifer who held the same post for the Hokies in 1994, does an excellent job using misdirection plays and varied play calling to keep opposing defenses off balance.

The yardage totals for UNC do not accurately reflect how well they run the ball. Although only fifth in the conference in total yards rushing, UNC averages 4.9 yards per carry, a very impressive number that trails only UVa in conference (and UVa hasn’t played the same level of competition thus far). Once the ground game is started, Carolina uses a lot of bootlegs and play action to hold linebackers and to get their quarterback to the edge.

The leader of the UNC offense is 5’11”, 217 SR Darian Durant. Durant owns virtually every school passing record despite playing on some truly terrible teams, and he is a legitimate all conference candidate. This year Durant has posted solid numbers as he throws for 177 yards per game, has a 10-7 touchdown to interception ratio, completes nearly sixty percent of his throws and is third in the conference in passing efficiency.

Durant in some respects is like a more seasoned Reggie Ball. He goes through his hot and cold spells, but he displays a strong arm with better touch than Ball. He throws over the middle better than you might think for someone his height.

Durant also runs the ball well, although he lacks Ball’s outright speed. However, Durant would much rather break contain and look for an open receiver than pull it down and run. Still, he is capable of making plays with his legs as he has 140 rushing yards on the season.

UNC has a lot of talent at tailback. Last week the Heels went with their third stringer, 5’9”, 196 SR Chad Scott, against the Canes and he responded by lighting them up for 175 yards rushing on 25 carries. Scott has a terrific burst and the ability to change direction on a dime. His durability has been a concern, but he showed some toughness last week playing through a hip injury. His availability for this week is uncertain because of that same injury.

On the year Scott is North Carolina’s second leading rusher with 411 yards and four touchdowns, with a per carry average of 5.9 yards. Scott has six receptions this year and averages 12.2 per catch.

Another quick, scatback type is 5’10”, 190 SR Jacque Lewis. Lewis sat out last week with a mild fracture in his back, but it looks like he’ll be playing this week. He has the ability to go the distance and the numbers to prove it with 501 rushing yards (leading the team), three touchdowns and a remarkable 7.1 per carry average (which leads all ACC feature backs). He also had five receiving touchdowns last year, so he is a legitimate threat out of the backfield. I expect Lewis to receive the bulk of the carries this week for UNC.

Mr. Inside for the Tar Heels is 5’11”, 210 SO Ronnie McGill. McGill has good speed, but he also is a very good strength and conditioning athlete who is capable of breaking tackles. Last year as a freshman he rushed for 654 yards and seven touchdowns, and he would have bettered those numbers if he had stayed healthy this year. Unfortunately for UNC, he suffered a sprained ankle early in the season that has limited him to only four games, so his numbers aren’t gaudy (238 rushing yards, 5.3 average, 4 touchdowns). He is considered the least likely of the three Tar Heel tailbacks to play this week.

The Heels converted a starter at defensive end last year to fullback, and the result has been an unqualified success. 6’3”, 260 SR battering ram Madison Hedgecock is tough and physical. Initially, the staff used him solely to obliterate linebackers, which he did adeptly, but after he got his first carry of the year in game five versus N.C. State, they decided to give him the chance to run more. In the next four games, Hedgecock has 29 carries (7 per game) for 117 yards and two one yard touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if he lines up at tailback and gets the ball in short yardage situations. He also may see some base set snaps at tailback if McGill or Scott, or both, are unable to play. Hedgecock only has two receptions on the year, so he isn’t a key component in the passing game.

Speaking of the passing game, the Tar Heels have a diverse and talented group of receivers. Any of their top four targets can make a play.

The most experienced is 5’8”, 170 SR Jawarski Pollock. In spite of his size, Pollock is a terrific possession receiver. He is second in the ACC in receptions per game (4.4), but he is not a long ball threat (only a 9.6 per catch average with one touchdown). He is quick in and out of his breaks and catches the ball very well.

Perhaps the receiver with the brightest long term prospectus is 6’3”, 190 SO Jesse Holley. Holley is a tremendous natural athlete that got some minutes last year for the basketball team. He has size, speed and athletic ability. On the season he has 17 catches for 250 yards (14.6 average) and a touchdown. He is not afraid to make catches over the middle.

The fastest of the wide receivers is 6’0”, 189 SO Mike Mason. Mason set the table for last week’s upset by making a highlight reel catch over future NFL first round draft choice Antrel Rolle of Miami. Mason’s speed makes him UNC’s most dangerous deep threat. Both Mason and Holley are candidates to run a reverse.

Last but not least, 6’3”, 212 JR Derrele Mitchell is the most physical of the wide receivers. Mitchell has 10 catches with a nice average (17.3) and two touchdowns. He has attempted one pass this year and it fell incomplete. Adarius Bowman, an early season standout at wide receiver, has been suspended indefinitely and is not expected to play this week.

Typically tight ends are not pass catchers in a Gary Tranquill offense, but that perception may be changing after six balls were caught by the big guys last week versus Miami. The best receiver is Virginia native Jon Hamlett (6’5”, 247 SO) who has 10 catches, half of which came against UM, for 124 yards. 6’2”, 255 SR backup tight end Scott Brumett caught an eighteen yard touchdown last week as well. Former defensive lineman Jocques Dumas has size (6’6”, 263) and experience as a senior. He is an excellent blocker who is a key component of their running game.

The unsung stars of this offense are the guys in the trenches. This is one of the very best lines in the ACC, and that manifests itself in their numbers. In addition to averaging 4.9 yards per carry, the line has only given up thirteen sacks. Considering some of the pass rushers on their schedule, that is a very good number.

The lynchpin of the offensive line is 6’3”, 328 SR center Jason Brown. Brown is a big time player. He has started 35 consecutive games, so he has the experience to make the proper line calls. Add to that his physical prowess (an astounding 768 lb. squat, plus the speed to pull) and you have the makings of an NFL center. To give you an idea of his focus and tenacity, he came within one play of earning the first perfect grade ever given by the UNC offensive line coach in his 20 years of coaching. Even more impressively, Brown did it in a game against Louisville where his team lost 34-0. Brown should be an all conference player.

The other grey beard on the offensive line is 6’5”, 291 SR right tackle Willie McNeill. McNeill has started 39 games in his career and played some at both tackle spots, so he has seen in all. He understands positioning in the passing game and is solid in the running game.

The bookend tackle is 6’4”, 297 JR Brian Chacos. Chacos is a first year starter on the left side, but Bunting has been very pleased with his progress. In fact, in his press conference Bunting specifically noted that Chacos played one of his best games against the Canes. Although he is much improved, I would expect Tranquill to scheme to provide him with some help against the VT defensive ends by keeping in a back in by rolling Durant.

The two guards are 6’3”, 299 FR Charlston Gray and 6’4”, 295 JR Kyle Ralph. Gray has started all season and has improved as the campaign has progressed. He should be a standout in time. Ralph is steady and had some experience coming into this season (12 career starts).

The UNC offensive line does a lot of pulling and relies on movement rather than girth. In fact, Carolina starts only one 300 pounder in Brown. Regardless, this offensive line is one of the top three that VT will see all season.

UNC’s Defense

Even giving a nod to the disclaimer about the Heels tough schedule, this group has been abysmal for most of the year. They are last in the conference in total defense (493 yards allowed per game), second to last in rushing defense (231 yards per game, including a conference worst 5.6 per carry against average), last in pass defense (262 yards) and last in scoring defense (34.6 points per game surrendered). They also don’t create many big plays, as they have seven sacks on the season – again last in the conference – and have only 11 forced turnovers (five fumble recoveries, six interceptions). Their red zone defense has been terrible as well, as teams have converted 37 of 41 opportunities, a 90 percent rate (including a whopping 28 touchdowns). By comparison, VT’s opponents convert their red zone opportunities at a 53 percent clip.

With all that being said, the defense did play the run much better in the last game against Miami, as they held the Canes to 77 rushing yards on 23 carries. UNC will look to carry that improvement through to their game against the Hokies.

Of the Heels top nine defensive linemen, seven are freshmen or sophomores. The starters are 6’6”, 335 SR defensive tackle Jonas Seawright, 6’2”, 269 FR defensive tackle Kyndraus Guy, 6’2”, 256 JR defensive end Tommy Davis, and either 6’5”, 245 SO Brian Rackley or 6’6”, 297 FR defensive end Khalif Mitchell (from Virginia Beach).

Seawright is a team co-captain and is the leader up front. He has 22 tackles on the year, a solid number for a tackle. He provides bulk inside but is essentially a one gap player. Davis is the other veteran starter on the d-line, and he has been the most productive statistically as he has 28 tackles and a team leading 4.5 tackles for a loss. He also has seven quarterback hurries, by far the top number on the team. Davis played his best game against FSU, so he is capable of stepping up against good competition.

Guy started the year as a defensive end, but he moved inside to tackle in the FSU game and has stayed there. He is a little light to be banging inside with the big guys, but Bunting doesn’t have a whole lot of options. He has nine tackles on the year. Rackley (four TFL, two sacks) has started three games this year including last week versus Miami. He has a nice burst off the edge.

Mitchell is a very nice long term prospect who has started two games, but as expected he has struggled some in his freshman season. He has 12 tackles on the year, including 3 for a loss. He has the frame eventually to grow into a difference maker. SO Melik Brown (6’1”, 256) also has three starts at defensive end, and he demonstrates the speed of a converted linebacker. FR Terry Hunter has earned praise from the coaches and should see time this week.

Bunting does not have a set starting lineup on the line, and practice performance dictates the distribution of playing time on any given Saturday. The Heels play a lot of bodies, in part because there isn’t any one player that commands a double team.

The linebackers are the relative strength of the defense, but their leading tackler, Fred Sparkman, has been suspended indefinitely. Sparkman averaged over 10 tackles per game, so his absence has been felt. Despite that loss, the group played well last week.

Some combination of Jeff Longhany (6’3”, 251 JR), Larry Edwards (6’2”, 232 SO), Doug Justice (6’2”, 246 JR) and Tommy Richardson (6’1”, 223 JR) will probably start this week. Edwards was the odd man out of the lineup last week.

Longhany plays the strongside, and he has 20 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, on the season. He has nice size, but just okay speed. Justice patrols the middle and was voted by the coaches as the team MVP versus Miami. In the words of his own coach, Justice is somewhat limited athletically, but he is an intelligent player that is always in the right spot. Bunting indicated after his performance last week that Justice would start again this week. On the year, he has 21 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss.

The starter on the weakside likely will be Tommy Richardson. Richardson runs very well as he is a converted safety. He has 31 tackles this year. He leads the entire team in passes broken up with three, and he also is second with three quarterback hurries. He is the best athlete of the linebacker starters.

Several backup linebackers will play key roles. After a very promising freshman campaign, 6’3”, 232 mike linebacker Larry Edwards has been uneven this fall. Edwards has 35 tackles and two interceptions this fall, but he hasn’t been a consistent starter. He is a very good athlete who probably carries more big play potential than any other linebacker the Heels have.

Backing up Richardson on the weak side is Mahlon Carey, a 6’1”, 219 JR with 42 tackles, including four for a loss. He led the team in tackles last year. Carey is capable of playing linebacker or safety depending on the situation.

A long term name to watch is Hilee Taylor, a 6’3”, 208 true freshman. He is a special teams demon and should develop into a very good player on the weakside down the line.

The secondary has four new starters this year. The emotional leader is East Tennessee State transfer Gerald Sensabaugh, a third team Division I-AA All-American. Sensabaugh, is a senior strong safety and co-captain with nice size (6’2”, 210) and a fearless attitude. His pregame comments about Miami’s offense being simplistic generated some press – by the way, he’s right - and Sensabaugh backed it up with his play on the field. He is second on the team with 53 tackles (behind only the suspended Sparkman), including 3.5 for a loss, and two passes broken up. If UNC goes to eight in the box, he will be the eighth man.

The free safety is Hopewell, Virginia native Kareen Taylor (6’0”, 195 SO). Taylor is third on the team with 47 tackles, but he has not been particularly active defending the passing game (no interceptions and only two passes defensed). Taylor will have a busy game providing help to the UNC corners as well as watching the Hokie tight ends.

The corners are 6’0”, 170 SO Jacoby Watkins (2 interceptions, 46 tackles) and 5’11”, 190 JR Cedrick Holt (22 tackles). Watkins is solid, but neither of them can be considered shut down type corners. Nickel corner Lionell Green brings slightly more height to the position (6’1”, 180 SR) and started the first two games this year. Freshman Trimane Goddard (5’11”, 180) will be a player with more experience.

UNC’s Special Teams

The special teams for the Tar Heels are slightly below average, with the most notable standout being true freshman kicker Connor Barth. Barth hit the 42 yard game winner last week against Miami, and he is an impressive 9-11 on the season. His only misses this year are from 39 and 47 yards.

Sophomore punter David Wooldridge had a terrific year as a freshman (45.1 yards per punt), but has not been as effective this season. Wooldridge is only averaging 41.1 yards per kick, and UNC’s net punt average of 35.6 yards is okay. Wooldridge has had two kicks blocked and that’s a concern going against VT.

North Carolina is seventh in the conference in both kickoff and punt returns. The best kickoff returner is Mason, who is averaging 23.6 yards per attempt. He does have the speed to break a big play.

Pollock is the primary punt returner. He has an 8.l average with a long of 21 yards. Pollock is reliable, but he hasn’t shown breakaway potential.

Kickoff coverage is not a strength. UNC is last in the conference with 27.1 yards surrendered per return.

The Lowdown

If you look at this game solely by the season numbers, it really shouldn’t be close. Statistically, VT is much superior to UNC. However, those numbers don’t reflect how well UNC is playing now, nor do they give an accurate representation over how well the Heels have played in Kenan (exempting a 34-0 pasting by Louisville).

While the win versus Miami was very impressive, I think UNC will have to do some different things against the Hokies. VT will not show UNC as many man coverages as the Canes did, and consequently the middle of the field, particularly crossing patterns, might not be as easy to complete.

I will be interested to see how Bud Foster uses Xavier Adibi in this game. My suspicion is that he won’t start out spying on Durant because Darian tends not to run as much as a Rasheed Marshall or Reggie Ball, but that plan could change if the Hokie defensive ends lose contain a few times. Gary Tranquill’s familiarity with the Hokie scheme should help him.

The “mistake factor” weighs slightly in VT’s favor. UNC does not have a good turnover margin (-4, eighth in the conference), compared to VT’s +6. UNC will have a tough time winning this game without being on the plus side of the turnover ledger.

On the other hand, UNC is the least penalized team in the conference with 36.1 yards per game, while VT averages a whopping 71 yards per game. The Hokies cannot afford six personal foul penalties like they had last week at Georgia Tech.

If there is one determinative factor Saturday, it will be the running game. VT must run the ball and stop the run. Obviously, this is important in every game, but UNC has really struggled to defend the run this year. Keeping the ball on the ground will keep the Heel offense off the field and wear down the young UNC defensive players.

Likewise, if VT can stop the run it will have a great chance to win the game. In their four wins, Carolina has averaged 267 yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry. Remember, those numbers came against some pretty good defenses in N.C. State, GT and Miami (okay, Miami’s was a good defense). In the four games UNC has lost, they average 90 yards rushing per game and 3.0 per carry.

The second point worth mentioning is that UNC has been a very slow starter this year. The Heels have been outscored 75-27 in the first quarter. If VT can get on top early, that could take away some of UNC’s running game and make life difficult for Durant. Starting quickly has not been a VT strength, however.

As far as intangibles go, I think VT has several factors in its favor. First, UNC essentially had a short week coming off a huge late Saturday night win against Miami. They probably didn’t even start thinking about the Hokies until Tuesday. Second, UNC has yet to win back to back games this year, so consistency has not been its strong suit. That is hardly atypical with a young team. Third, I think VT is starting to see some of its key individual units play better (wide receivers, offensive line, linebackers with the return of Adibi), and I think that individual improvement will help make the Hokies a better team down the stretch.

There certainly is reason to worry about this game, especially if UNC can run the ball, but in the end I think the Hokies will prevail fairly comfortably.

Prediction: VT 31, UNC 20

Will Stewart's Take: I agree with Jeff that if both teams come out and play their games, the Hokies should win by 10-14 points (in other words, two scores).

The big issues here are intangibles, mistakes, and special teams. Both teams have strong intangibles right now. UNC has won some big games at home and has momentum after their victory over Miami. So far this year, the Heels have followed up a big win with a loss, but they know that and have talked all week about avoiding that trap. The question is, can they change their ways and play two good games in a row? We won't know until about 3:30 Saturday.

As for the Hokies, they learned last Thursday that early adversity on the road does not equal a loss. That is THE biggest lesson from the GT game. If the Hokies have a mini-meltdown early on, turn the ball over once or twice, and give up a score or two, which is exactly what they did against GT, all Bryan Randall has to do is get the team together on the sideline and in the locker room and say, "60 minutes." That will calm the team down and get them back on track.

Regarding mistakes, I think the Hokies can make a few and get away with it, like they did last week, but not too many. Big plays bailed them out of their turnover- and penalty-laden performance against GT, but they can't bank on a points explosion like that again this week. It may or may not happen. And hopefully, Frank Beamer has talked to the team about maintaining their composure not just when things are going poorly, but when they're going well. VT kept cool in the face of adversity against GT but went a little haywire when things went well. That needs to even out.

Lastly, special teams. I don't like the Connor Barth/Brandon Pace matchup. Pace is strong on field goals (15-of-19), but did you see Barth (9-of-11) during the timeout before the game-winning kick against the Hurricanes? He was smiling. It was reminiscent of the down-on-one-knee, totally bored expression Chris Kinzer wore on his face as he waited to make the winning kick in the 1986 Peach Bowl. The Hokies can do themselves a favor by making sure that this game doesn't come down to a field goal either way. Perhaps with a blocked punt?

Jeff's score is about what I'd predict, so once again, we're very, very close in our predictions. Barring turnovers and special teams "events," I think the Hokies will pressure UNC all day offensively, and the Heels will put up more points than any other VT opponent this year except for USC.

Will's Prediction: VT 34, UNC 24

(By the way, picking VT's opponent to score 24 points is a lot, I know – USC got 24, GT got 20, and no other VT opponent has 20 or more. If the Heels don't get 20 or more against the Hokies, then I won't pick any of the last three VT opponents to get 20. Well, maybe Miami at home.)

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