North Carolina enters Saturday’s clash with a high-powered offense ranked 31st in the country. Mitch Trubisky has been nothing short of excellent, especially in the last two weeks. Their skill positions are loaded with talent as well. Elijah Hood is a productive, forceful runner while Ryan Switzer demands double teams as a receiver.
Meanwhile, the Hokies have been spectacular on defense in three of their four games this season against both the run and pass. Bud Foster’s attacking scheme allows Woody Baron, Ken Ekanem, and Vinny Mihota to get penetration, disrupting the timing and rhythm of runs and passes. The bye week also came at a good time for Virginia Tech. The coaching staff had the opportunity to evaluate, self-scout, and adjust their schemes to better fit the personnel.
To be frank, the Hokies have a hell of a challenge in front of them. This is an offense that averages 7.5 yards per play (5th in the nation – Hokies are 7th in Yards/Play against). North Carolina can attack every part of the field through the air and on the ground. Head Coach Justin Fuente will also get a taste of his own medicine with the tempo North Carolina plays with. After a quarter and a half, Florida State looked absolutely gassed. The good news is the Hokies’ defense practices against the same type of tempo, so that should help.
The real key for the Hokies’ defense will be slowing down Ryan Switzer. He has a diverse skill set as he can play the X, Y, and Z receiver positions, although he will primarily line up in the slot. Through five games, the senior receiver has amassed 47 catches, just eight shy of his 2015 total. In just his last two, Switzer has totaled 30 catches for over 350 yards. The Hokies don’t really have a defensive back who can match his speed and agility – not many programs do.
Switzer is the player UNC goes to when they need yards. Against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, the Tar Heels faced a 2nd and 21 with the game on the line. Trubisky targeted Switzer three straight times and they were able to convert a 4th and 6 for a first down on what ended up being the game winning drive. Assuming the weather doesn’t heavily impact the game, Trubisky will look to force feed Switzer the football.
When defending a player with Switzer’s speed, you will usually see a defense roll a safety towards his side of the field in case the CB gets beat deep. With the Hokies’ precedence of predominantly playing man-free coverage, it’s likely they’ll use this strategy.
However, with the way Trubisky has been distributing the ball to his other playmakers, it will be a risky strategy leaving other cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. Mack Hollins might even be a bigger deep threat than Switzer, averaging over 19 yards per catch. Bug Howard and Austin Proehl can win their one-on-one matchups as well. Defenses often keep two safeties deep to keep X-plays to a minimum (which was a problem against ECU) against the Tar Heels, but that also allows Hood and Logan to run against six-man boxes. It is a pick-your-poison type deal, but again, if the weather changes the style of game, Bud Foster will allow his safeties to step forward closer to the LOS.
And Larry Fedora is smart enough to use Switzer as a decoy as well. Proehl gets about as wide open as you can get because of all the attention to given to #3, who ends up doing next to nothing on this play.
Switzer is not only a burner, but he possesses impressive lateral quickness as well. He is so crisp out of his breaks, wasting little motion which allows him to create quick separation. Defenses often play off of him to limit his big-play ability (which doesn’t always work), leaving space underneath for Switzer to take advantage of. In fact, most of his targets are under 10 yards on quick routes and throws.
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About 70% of his catches in the last two games have been less than 10 yards from the LOS. One of the reasons for this is because of Switzer's impressive YAC skills. On these quick throws, the Hokies must swarm to the football because it is never a guarantee the first guy will bring him down. According to PFF, Switzer leads the nation with 385 yards after the catch. And once Switzer gets north-south, it’s game over.
North Carolina manufactures touches for him through jet sweeps and bubble screens to get him the ball underneath and on the perimeter. If the Hokies or Hurricane Matthew can take away the deep ball, tackling becomes the primary focus for the defense to limit YAC. Obviously, playing on a wet surface will make fundamental tackling difficult. Mook Reynolds has been very good when offenses try to attack the perimeter quickly in terms of diagnosing the play, but checking Switzer will be a huge test for him.
I want to mention special teams here because Switzer is dangerous as a returner as well. He has returned seven punts for touchdowns during his college career, tied for third all time. Needless to say, he’s good. The Hokies have won the field position in their last two games, which has helped the defense keep points off the board and given the offense short fields to work with. They will need to be as sharp as ever on Saturday in order to continue to win that battle, because a play like this could give the Tar Heels the necessary momentum to win this game.
The Hokies can’t pay too much attention to Switzer, otherwise the Tar Heels will burn them on the ground. North Carolina’s running game is diverse, partly due to the athletic ability of the offensive line. Once the big boys get on the move, whether it be a zone scheme or simply pulling to the edge, they become a tough unit to overcome.
In the last two weeks, Trubisky, Hood, Switzer, and Mack Hollins have been filling up the stat columns, but the offensive line play has been very good, specifically in pass pro. Mitch Trubisky doesn’t go 31/38 against FSU if the OL doesn’t keep him clean. They have also been doing their job in the running game. This is an athletic group that can move in space and they time their blocks well. They don’t necessarily get great push on the interior, however. If this game becomes and old-fashioned battle in the trenches due to the weather, the Hokies should have the upper hand. Ken Ekanem and Woody Baron have each been outstanding in the run game this season and are capable of handling the Tar Heels' front line.
One of the other reasons the Tar Heels have a diverse running game is because of the different styles of runners in the backfield. Elijah Hood is the name everyone knows - he rushed for 1400+ yards and 17 touchdowns in 2015. The one thing you notice about Hood is the power he runs with. He absolutely levels the Pitt defender on this play.
Hood gave the Hokies fits last November with his powerful running style. He is a similar player to Jalen Hurd who Virginia Tech failed to contain in the Battle at Bristol. Since that game, the defense has been playing faster and swarming to the football, which needs to continue.
Backup RB TJ Logan is one of my favorite players to watch on the Tar Heels offense. He’s shifty, explosive, and versatile. He has actually been a more productive runner than Hood five games into 2016, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and gains about 8.5 yards every time he touches the football. Simply put, he’s a dangerous playmaker out in space, but he has the ability to run the ball between the tackles as well, albeit not as well as Hood can. Hood may be better suited to the elements on Saturday, but Logan still has the ability to break a game open.
A lot of the responsibility in stopping the UNC ground attack will fall upon the shoulders of Motuapuaka and Edmunds. North Carolina likes to use three and four wide receiver sets frequently, which means Hood and TJ Logan often face light boxes. This was the case for Logan’s TD run which put the Tar Heels up 14-0 early in the second quarter. FSU gets caught with two safeties deep and just six in the box, allowing UNC to get a hat on a hat on this inside zone run.
The linebackers need to be able to fill their run fits quickly. On this play, FSU is ready and the linebackers don’t overplay their responsibilities. They make a fundamentally sound tackle for little gain. These types of plays will be necessary, although it’s unlikely Foster will leave two safeties back often.
Every play, the Hokies’ defense has to do four things. Know where #3 is lined up. Keep the play in front of them. Stay in their gaps and tackle well. Then get on to the next one, because the UNC offense runs at a blistering pace. If they can do that, the Hokies’ offense should be in a good position to win this one on the road.