There are any number of of intriguing story lines that could define Virginia’s 118th meeting with North Carolina, from the tradition of the “South’s oldest rivalry” to the spotlight of the first Thursday night game in Charlottesville since 2006 to the Cavaliers’ surge for a second straight bowl appearance after entering last month’s bye with a 2-6 record.
But if Virginia is to win its third straight game, on senior night no less, and potentially set up a fascinating Commonwealth Cup matchup at Virginia Tech to close out the regular season, the Cavaliers will need to heed the lessons learned from three previous games – none of which involved the Tar Heels.
Game 1: Virginia 41, Miami 40 – This one should be fresh on everyone’s minds since it happened just five days ago, and if not for quarterback Michael Rocco’s heroics, many Cavaliers fans would be talking about the exploits of Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson. The freshman tormented Virginia all afternoon, rushing for 151 yards while also returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and throwing a halfback pass for another touchdown.
So of course, the Cavaliers now get to face the one ACC running back that’s having a better season than Johnson. North Carolina’s Gio Bernard has rushed for an league-high 1,008 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, and as a punt returner, he’s every bit the threat Johnson is.
Can Virginia’s defense limit Bernard’s explosiveness and force quarterback Bryn Renner to win Saturday’s game? Only Georgia Tech and its run-heavy option offense have more rushing plays of 30 or more yards among ACC teams this year. And it’s no coincidence three of North Carolina’s four losses this season have come when Bernard either did not play due to injury or was held under 100 rushing yards.
Game 2: Louisiana Tech 44, Virginia 38 : Under first-year Coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels are running a no-huddle spread offense and the Tar Heels have taken quite well to it, scoring more than 30 points seven times this season while averaging 75 plays per game. But the Cavaliers have some experience with this sort of fast-paced attack after facing the Bulldogs, who run a play every 12 seconds on average. This week in practice, Virginia’s defense even went up against a two-huddle offense to better simulate how little time the Tar Heels will wait between snaps.
Game 3: Southern Miss 30, Virginia 24 : Fedora was coaching the Golden Eagles last year when they came into Scott Stadium and scored what looked to be an upset at the time. As we all know now, Southern Miss turned into a 9-3 team last year, earning Fedora a promotion to a BCS job. He also took many of his coaches with him and is running very similar schemes on both offense and defense, which should help the Cavaliers.
But in that loss, Virginia was done in partly by turnovers. Rocco, then a sophomore making his fourth career start, threw three interceptions. He blamed them all on “bad decisions,” something the Cavaliers have avoided during their two-game win streak despite instituting a random quarterback rotation involving both Rocco and redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims. After entering the bye week with a turnover margin of minus-16, the Cavaliers are plus-4 in their past two games. Facing an explosive offense, they can ill afford to return to their previous ways.
I expect a shootout Thursday night, with neither defense able to consistently slow down either offense. Special teams could also be a factor. The Cavaliers are giving up more yards per kickoff return than any other team in the country, and the Tar Heels will be without place kicker Casey Barth, who is out for the rest of the season.
In the end, though, Bernard is the best player in the ACC this season and given what Johnson did last for Miami, I’m not sure Virginia will have an answer for him.
My prediction: North Carolina 41, Virginia 31
What do you th
ink? Can Virginia keep its bowl streak alive and win a third straight game? Or will North Carolina spoil the Cavaliers’ fun on senior night? Vote in the poll below and let me know how you think Saturday’s game will play out in the comments section.