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ACC Spotlight: UNC vs VT

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

The big Saturday in the ACC kicks off at noon between Virginia Tech and North Carolina, both of whom enter the showdown ranked. Each program sits at 2-0 but are also in dire need of consistency.

Because of COVID-19, both teams will be playing back-to-back weeks for the first time in 2020. The team to find its offensive rhythm first is likely to be the winner.

All signs point to the Clemson-Miami showdown having the bigger impact on the ACC championship race. While that’s likely true, don’t sleep on the Virginia Tech-North Carolina matchup either. In a crowded one-standing setup this fall, the Hokies-Tar Heels showdown could have a major impact on the race to the top two spots in the conference as well.

The Virginia Tech-North Carolina contest will also include one of the best matchups of the entire ACC season.

As expected, North Carolina relied on its defense to beat Boston College last week while its offense continued to search for chemistry. Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell threw two touchdowns and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt in the victory, but he completed just 53.8 percent of his passes and threw an interception.

While Howell hasn’t played poorly, he’s left a little to be desired with three touchdowns versus three interceptions. North Carolina is scoring 28.5 points per game, which is a good average, but it’s also 10 points per contest fewer than what the Tar Heels posted in their final three ACC games and bowl matchup last year.

To truly get going, the North Carolina offense must involve senior wide receiver Dazz Newsome much more. Through two games, he only has three catches for 31 yards. Newsome contributes on special teams as well, but that’s simply not enough production from one of the team’s best weapons. Last year, he led the Tar Heels with 72 catches and posted 1,018 yards with 10 touchdowns.

Two games is a small sample, but through the first few weeks, Virginia Tech’s defensive weakness has been stopping the pass. In the ACC, the Hokies are ranked eighth in yards allowed per pass attempt and 10th in passing yards permitted per game. But the Hokies do have three interceptions, including at least one in each of the games they’ve played.

While pressure mounts for Howell to get his offense firing on all cylinders, Virginia Tech is still determining who will start behind center this Saturday. Hendon Hooker entered the season as the expected starter at quarterback, but he has missed time because of COVID-19. In his absence, Braxton Burmeister and Quincy Patterson have played all the snaps behind center.

Patterson has supplied two touchdowns in just six pass attempts this year, but he didn’t see the field last weekend against Duke. Burmeister received every snap despite only completing 36 percent of his passes for 163 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Senior running back Khalil Herbert has carried the Virginia Tech offense early this season. He has rushed for 311 yards and three touchdowns on just 25 carries, averaging a whopping 12.4 yards per carry. He rushed for 207 yards against Duke.

With that tremendous success, Herbert rushing against the North Carolina defense figures to be one of the most intriguing matchups in the ACC not just this weekend but the entire season. The Tar Heels defense is ranked first and second in rushing yards allowed per game and rushing yards yielded per carry in the ACC this season. North Carolina has allowed 54 rushing yards per game, which is also first nationally.

While Herbert could easily raise that average, he might not be able to carry the Virginia Tech offense as he has the last two games. That will make coach Justin Fuente’s decision of who plays quarterback all that much more important.

The Tar Heels have been great at stopping the run, but they are last in the ACC in takeaways and turnover differential. Even if Herbert doesn’t explode for big runs like he did against Duke, the Hokies should remain patient with their ground game and wait to see if they can capitalize on a takeaway. Virginia Tech has an even turnover differential.

There’s still a long way to go in the ACC season, but North Carolina will not play Clemson, and Virginia Tech avoids Notre Dame on the schedule. Whichever offense gets rolling the quickest Saturday will have the advantage both in this game and the rest of the season in the ACC championship race.

Prediction: North Carolina 28, Virginia Tech 21