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Virginia Tech football: A preview of this week’s game against North Carolina

This is a huge game for the Hokies. If they win, they are legitimately back in a wide-open Coastal Division race. If they lose, well.

North Carolina v Georgia Tech
North Carolina QB Sam Howell
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The North Carolina Tar Heels invade Lane Stadium tomorrow afternoon for a pivotal ACC Coastal matchup. UNC currently sits in a three-way tie atop the Coastal at 2-1 (3-3 overall) with Virginia and Duke. The Hokies (4-2, 1-2) are one of three teams sitting at one win apiece just behind the top of the division. Yes, the Coastal is a mess. But the great thing about the Coastal is it won’t take an unbelievable season to win the division and earn the right to lose to Clemson in the ACC title game.

Heading into this weekend’s contest, UNC is clearly the better team right now. That’s not something Virginia Tech fans are used to hearing, however, it is true. While the gap is not large and the Tar Heels are not a powerhouse, the team has clearly bought in under new (old) head coach Mack Brown.

A big reason for Carolina’s success is true freshman quarterback Sam Howell. This kid is special. On the season, Howell, has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,544 yards, 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions. One of UNC’s three losses was a near-upset against the aforementioned Clemson Tigers. In that game, Howell completed 15 of 27 passes for 144 yards, two touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions. Anytime his time needed a score, Howell marched them down the field and the moment is never too big for him.

While Howell is an exciting young prospect who looks like a future star, he does tend to take sacks. On the season, Howell has been sacked 19 times. The Hokies have had some issues getting to the passer at times, so I would look for defensive coordinator Bud Foster to be more aggressive this weekend. In the win over Rhode Island, the Hokies rushed just three often, but that was by design. Foster wasn’t going to tip his hand too much against an FCS opponent with the conference schedule heating up.

The Hokies have had some struggles against the run, fortunately the Tar Heels aren’t one of the better rushing teams in the country. UNC ranks No. 68 in rushing offense, averaging 163 yards per game, but just 3.9 yards per attempt. The Heels do have a pair of solid backs in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Williams is heating up and could cause some issues for Tech’s defense.

A key matchup for this game is Virginia Tech’s corners, Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller against UNC’s talented wide receivers in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. Newsome, whose father and brother played for Virginia Tech, is North Carolina’s top receiver, as he has caught 29 passes and three scores on the season. He is a dynamic player. Brown leads the Heels in receiving yards with 424 and touchdowns with five. He is a prime downfield threat for Howell and the two have a strong connection.

Defensively, the Hokies should be able to attack UNC’s wounded and inexperienced secondary. This is a clear advantage for the Hokies with Tre Turner, Damon Hazelton, Hezekiah Grimsley and Tayvion Robinson all expected to play. That could cause major matchup problems for the UNC defense. There will be pressure on quarterback Hendon Hooker to get his playmakers the football in position to get yards after the catch. Since Hooker ascended into the starting lineup, tight ends Dalton Keene and James Mitchell have been more involved and that is a good thing.

The Hokies haven’t been able to run the ball with consistency all season. We’ve seen brilliant flashes from freshman Keshawn King and Deshawn McClease. The running game has improved with Hooker in the lineup and his legs could cause issues for the Heels. UNC ranks No. 72 in rushing defense and are anchored up front by a pair of really good defensive tackles in Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford.

Which Virginia Tech team will we see? The one that was embarrassed by Duke or the team that went to Miami and potentially salvaged its season? No one truly knows, but I think we all feel more confident with Hooker under center and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelson must call a game around Hooker’s strengths, while also staying aggressive in the passing game, too.