A look at UNC's offense vs. Virginia Tech's defense
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said that the only consistent part of his offense is its inconsistency. Now UNC must get bounce back against Virginia Tech, which features the fourth-ranked defense in the country and has already bottled up two teams that the Tar Heels (1-3, 0-1 ACC) couldn’t contain.
The Hokies (4-1, 1-0) only allowed 95 yards and three points in the final three quarters of a 15-10 win over East Carolina – the same team that put up 55 points and 603 yards against UNC at Kenan Stadium last Saturday.
Virginia Tech also recorded three interceptions and seven sacks against ECU, which runs an up-tempo, spread offense much like UNC’s.
“They just beat (ECU) up physically,” Fedora said. “That’s their game. They’re a physical team. They play with a lot of intensity, a lot of aggressiveness, and they get after you.”
The Hokies also held Georgia Tech’s triple-option to 129 yards in a 17-10 win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where the Tar Heels allowed 324 yards two weeks ago in a 28-20 loss.
Virginia Tech leads the nation in interceptions (11) and are seventh in tackles for loss (8.8) per game) and eighth in sacks (3.4 per game). Its balanced and experienced defense, which returned nine starters from last season, is ninth in both yards per rush (2.7) and yards per attempt (5.2)
And that was all without all-ACC cornerback Antone Exum, who was cleared to play in Saturday’s game at Lane Stadium (12:30 p.m., WRAL) for the first time this season. The senior led the team in interceptions and was the MVP of the Russell Athletic Bowl before tearing his ACL during a pickup basketball game in January.
Moving the ball against the Hokies would be a challenge for anyone, let alone an offense that is still struggling because of breakdowns in the run game and pass protection.
“If it were one thing, it'd be easy to fix,” Fedora said. “But as soon as you stick your finger in this hole, then all of a sudden it starts leaking over here and then you stick your finger over there and you've got something else that comes up. And it's not a consistent thing. One thing that is consistent is that we shoot ourselves in the foot somewhere amongst the 11.”
UNC did have great success last year, taking advantage of a fast tempo, hot temperatures and the talents of Giovani Bernard to put up 339 rushing yards en route to a 48-34 win.
Bernard’s 262 yards on the ground were the most ever for a player against Virginia Tech. But UNC’s offense has struggled to replace him and three members of the offensive line.
“We know that we have to step up everything that we’re doing, because what we’ve been doing hasn’t gotten it done,” senior left tackle James Hurst said. “So our work ethic, our intensity, our off-the-field work, our film study, everything just has to ramp up.”
The offense’s task could get even tougher if quarterback Bryn Renner’s mobility is limited. The senior has been practicing, but wore a protective boot around his right foot during his only media session Monday.
“Anytime you’ve got a guy who is hobbled, it’s going to affect you,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “So yeah, it will be a concern. I think he’ll be fine, but he got banged up pretty good. He got hit a couple of times and he made it through. And he’s a little sore right now but he’ll be fine come Saturday.”
Hurst said it didn’t matter how mobile Renner was if the offensive line doesn’t improve this week.
“To this point, the offensive line hasn’t done what they’re supposed to do,” Hurst said. “So regardless of who’s playing quarterback – you could put Peyton Manning back there – if we can’t protect the passer, it’s going to be hard for them to do their job.”