North Carolina

Tied for first in the Coastal Division, UNC football trying not to feel the pressure

During a team meeting on Sunday, UNC coach Mack Brown showed his players the ACC Coastal Division standings and the bowl games they could potentially play in this season. Then he took it down.

“Now you’ve got to play,” Brown recalled to reporters on Wednesday.

Brown said the message to his team was to not feel pressure to win now. They should feel pleasure.

“I don’t want them to feel pressure about the Coastal and I don’t want them to feel pressure about a bowl,” Brown said. “I want us to get good. And if you practice really good everyday, then you can be a great team at some point.”

The Tar Heels are doing that. Brown said on Wednesday that he likes how his team practiced during its bye week last week, and again this week as UNC (3-3, 2-1 ACC) heads into its game against Virginia Tech (4-2, 1-2) in Blacksburg, Va. on Saturday. He said his players appeared energetic and focused on getting better.

UNC is tied with Duke and Virginia for first place in the Coastal Division standings.

The Tar Heels need to win three of their final six games to become bowl eligible. Winning all six games would ensure them the ACC Coastal Division title, their first since 2015.

Considering where the Tar Heels were the last two years — 3-9 in 2017 and 2-9 in 2018 — they’ve come a long way.

“We said it’s all out there for us,” Brown said on Wednesday. “It’s on us to play well and win on the road.”

UNC has struggled against Virginia Tech

The Hokies have won the last three games against the Tar Heels. The last two have been particularly painful.

In 2017, Virginia Tech ran UNC out of Blacksburg 59-7. At the time, it was then-UNC coach Larry Fedora’s worst loss in his six seasons with the program.

UNC senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, who is from Ashburn, Va., still remembers that loss. When he was asked how much that loss sticks with him, Crawford smiled, nodded his head and said, “A lot.”

“That was probably the worst out of the three,” he said. “But we lost three in a row to them. In my mind, it’s just, ‘gotta get back.’”

In 2018, UNC led Virginia Tech 19-14 with a little more than six minutes left, and were a yard from making it a two-possession game. But UNC running back Michael Carter fumbled at the goal line. The Hokies recovered and marched 98 yards down field in 18 plays to win the game.

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Containing QB Hendon Hooker

In those two seasons, Virginia Tech was in a better position to beat UNC. This season, the Tar Heels are the team who could win. The Hokies have struggled at times this season. They lost to Duke 45-10 on Sept. 27, before making a change at quarterback. Earlier this month, redshirt senior quarterback Ryan Willis was benched and redshirt sophomore Hendon Hooker took over at the position. With Hooker, the Hokies have won their last two games, including a 42-35 victory over Miami on Oct. 5.

Hooker, who is 6-4, 228 pounds, has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran the ball 31 times for 119 yards and a touchdown in his last two starts.

UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said containing Hooker in the pocket will be a priority. The Tar Heels struggled to contain App State’s Zac Thomas, and Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman, and it cost them.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence also broke free a few times for some key first downs.

“I think against Rhode Island, (Hooker) probably didn’t have to do this as much of, you know, getting them out of jail,” Bateman said of the Virginia Tech quarterback. “It’s second-and-10 they drop back, you’ve got them covered, and he scrambles for 14 yards.

“And he killed Miami scrambling. So I think that’s a big emphasis for us, is rush lanes, contain, maybe not trying to make a great pass rush move to beat a guy, because it is going to open up a huge lane inside of you.”

UNC at Virginia Tech

When: 3: 30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.

Watch: Fox Sports South

Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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