No. 19 Virginia Tech (2-0) is heading to Chapel Hill this weekend to take on No. 8 North Carolina (2-0) in what will be Virginia Tech’s toughest test thus far in 2020.
The Hokies’ running game was dominant in a 38-31 win on the road against Duke last week, with running back Khalil Herbert posting 208 rushing yards and two touchdowns. However, the Virginia Tech offense will have its hands full against a North Carolina defense that has given up only 108 rushing yards through two games.
The Tarheels are coming off a thrilling 24-22 victory against Boston College, a game where the Eagles failed a potential game-tying 2-point conversion with 45 seconds left.
“[North Carolina] has a fantastic football team,” said head coach Justin Fuente on Monday. “They’re loaded on the offensive side of the ball with skill position players everywhere. Sam Howell is a fantastic quarterback. It’ll be a tremendous challenge for all of us.”
When the two teams played at Lane Stadium last season, the Quincy Patterson-led Hokies beat North Carolina 43-41 in six overtimes.
One key to Virginia Tech getting a win against North Carolina is slowing down sophomore quarterback Howell and the North Carolina offense.
The Hokies were down key contributors in the secondary against Duke with starting safety Divine Deablo and cornerbacks Jermaine Waller and Armani Chatman out, among 21 other players and staff. The Blue Devil offense was able to exploit the depleted Virginia Tech secondary late in the game. If key defensive players don’t play Saturday, Howell and the Tarheels could do the same.
“We’ll see when we get everybody back; they’re all going through those protocols. I have zero say in all of that, so hopefully he and some players and coaches will be returning,” Fuente said. “I’m not exactly positive on the whole time table right now.”
Howell is a legitimate NFL prospect with great mobility and arm talent. Against Boston College, he showed his ability to be a pocket-passer while also extending plays and completing throws on the run. Howell completed 14/26 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles.
Boston College was able to pressure Howell, sacking him four times and forcing a fumble and an interception due to the Eagles’ pass-rush. If the Hokies’ front seven continues to play well, they could exploit one of the few weaknesses for North Carolina’s offense.
Another question mark going into Saturday is Virginia Tech’s quarterback situation. Although Hendon Hooker suited up against Duke, Braxton Burmeister was the only quarterback who played.
It is unknown as to whether Hooker will see the field this week, but Burmeister needs to play better against the Tar Heels if the Hokies want to leave North Carolina with a win. Burmeister completed only 9/25 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Duke, but was a threat running the ball with 54 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Going forward it is likely Burmeister’s job to lose this season, but it will be interesting to see how head coach Justin Fuente manages Burmeister’s ebbs and flows with a competent passer behind him in Hooker.
Despite the quarterback position, the Hokies have had a dominant running game through two weeks led by the Virginia Tech offensive line and running back Herbert.
“What we have going on in our room right now is just really special,” said sophomore guard Doug Nester. “How we interact with each other, how we go to practice, how we go to work with everybody is just so unique.”
Expect Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen to feed Herbert early and often, but don’t be surprised if they break out new play calls with running back Raheem Blackshear as well.
This is a crucial game for both teams, as the outcome of Saturday’s matchup could loom large in the battle for the ACC Coastal Division. For Virginia Tech, a win against North Carolina before a stretch of games against teams such as Boston College, Louisville and Miami would entirely change fan expectations for this season.