CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Asked to pinpoint his team’s deficiency against the pass Saturday, Virginia Coach Mike London looked down at the stat sheet in front of him, just to make sure he’d seen the numbers correctly. The Cavaliers had met their goal — by a wide margin — for passing yards allowed in a game.
In fact, what London saw when he reviewed the final stat sheet was that neither team appeared to dominate in any fashion, which made the 28-17 loss Virginia suffered to North Carolina in both teams’ ACC opener even more confounding.
The Cavaliers (2-1) tallied more first downs (barely) and more yards (marginally). They possessed the ball longer (by about two minutes) and converted more often on third downs.
What Virginia couldn’t do Saturday was finish its work. Four of the Cavaliers’ first five offensive series lasted between seven and 12 plays and ended in North Carolina territory. None of them concluded in the red zone, and only one of them resulted in points.
“I don’t know that anything was changing,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said of the team’s offense once it crossed midfield. “I just think you have to execute. It’s hard to go on long drives without big plays. One of the things I’ll evaluate for myself is if I’m doing a good enough job getting us big plays. I think you have to get some chunks in there. It’s hard to go 15-play drives — the length of the field — little by little.”
Here, then, was the crucial difference between the two teams: The Tar Heels (3-0) carried out explosive plays throughout the game almost at will.
Whereas Virginia’s drives beyond midfield frequently ended in disappointment (a sample four-drive sequence: missed field goal, made field goal, turnover on downs, fumble), North Carolina’s often ended in celebration.
Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner (West Springfield) threw for only 143 yards, but many of them came in those “chunks” to which Lazor referred. An 18-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. A 17-yard touchdown pass in the third. North Carolina’s longest completion of the game — 36 yards — was thrown by Reggie Wilkins, a third-string redshirt freshman wide receiver. The Tar Heels were not prodigious, but they were efficient.
Meantime, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Cavaliers’ offense became less risk-averse, and even then it was by necessity. Virginia trailed by 18 points. Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco completed three passes for more than 15 yards in the final period, which was as many as he’d completed in the entire first half. More than that, he was looking to throw downfield more often.
“Like you saw at the end of our game, the offense can be very explosive at points,” said Rocco, who threw for 287 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. “We just have to capitalize on points when we get down in the red zone.”
The Cavaliers entered the red zone once Saturday.
The Tar Heels, conversely, went 4 for 5 on red zone opportunities. They gashed the Virginia defense for 222 rushing yards and then made the Cavaliers pay dearly on play-action passes. And when North Carolina got into scoring position, it finished the job.
“At halftime you look at the statistics, it wasn’t one side dominating the other side,” London said. “And as I look at the statistics at the end of the game, it also is not particularly one side dominating the other side. But they won where it matters, and that’s on the scoreboard.”