The Tar Heels (3-2, 1-1 ACC) leads the South’s Oldest Rivalry with a 57-53-4 advantage, but the Cavaliers (2-3, 0-2 ACC) have won four straight and 10 of the last 12. UNC is favored by 6.5 points over Virginia. “The Curse” also hangs over the North Carolina program in Charlottesville, having lost 14 straight games in the land of bow ties.
But while the media and opposing fan bases immediately think of that streak every other year when the Tar Heels travel to play their neighbors to the north, it’s not even a talking point in the locker rooms. One reason being that none of the roughly 170 scholarship players on both rosters were born the last time North Carolina won in Charlottesville.
“I really don’t look at all of that,” UNC senior free safety Deunta Williams said earlier this week. “I understand that we haven’t won up there. I thoroughly understand that. But you know what? It’s just another game.”
North Carolina and Virginia share numerous similarities in the grand scope of things, ranging from academics to quaint college towns. The football programs also resemble each other this year with a tendency to start games slowly. UNC has been outscored 74-62 in the first half, while UVa has encountered similar troubles (71-59).
"It's just about execution, coming out ready to play and understanding what is your assignment," Virginia quarterback Marc Verica said. "We have to do a better job of that in the first half because the trend is that we're getting in holes now, so when we come out in the second half, you know, the hole might be too deep to dig ourselves out of. It will definitely be important against UNC to come out and establish something early. Overall, we just have to be more consistent."
Both programs have closed games strong, however, as the Cavaliers have outscored opponents by 32 in the fourth quarter (41-9) and North Carolina has posted near identical numbers in the final stanza, outscoring opponents, 38-12.
But there are stark contrasts, as well. North Carolina’s offense has been a posterchild of efficiency, ranking 18th nationally red zone offense with 16 scores in 18 attempts, including 13 touchdowns. Quarterback T.J. Yates ranks second in the ACC and 35th nationally in passing efficiency, completing 104 of his 160 attempts for 1,170 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception, good for a 141.68 rating.
Not bad for a quarterback that that threw seven interceptions against five touchdowns through his first five games against FBS opponents in ’09.
"There's probably a certain growth that all quarterbacks go through some of that where they're not as protective and cautious with the ball,” UNC head coach Butch Davis said. “From last year to this year, his understanding of our offense and what it takes to be successful is evidence of the last two games, no turnovers, and realizing how critical and important that is. [He’s] distributing the ball and he's played very well."
North Carolina also received a significant boost to its rejuvenated ground game on Thursday as senior running back Ryan Houston (713 yards, 9 TD in ‘09) was cleared to play after sitting five games for his involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation. His battering ram imitation provides a complimentary bruising style to the fleet-footed nature of Johnny White (407 yards, 4 TD) and Shaun Draughn (222 yards, 3 TD).
That Tar Heel triumvirate will be salivating to slice and dice a Virginia run defense that ranks dead last in the ACC and 109th nationally in giving up 210.0 yards per game.
While North Carolina has returned players to its offense, Virginia is dealing with the exact opposite problem. Head coach Mike London announced on Sunday that senior tight end Joe Torcia (9 catches for 113 yards) is done for the season with a shoulder injury, and wide receiver Dontrelle Inman (20 catches, 325 yards, 2 TD) is questionable with an ankle injury. Those are two of Verica’s favorite targets, who has completed 89 of his 155 passes for 1,147 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions in his senior season.
To make matters worse for an offense that ranks 54th nationally (394.8 ypg), starting left tackle Landon Bradley will miss Saturday's game with a broken hand. Right tackle Oday Aboushi will slide over to Bradley’s spot and true freshman Morgan Moses will start at right tackle. More adversity is not what Uva’s offensive line needs as the unit ranks T-104th nationally in sacks allowed (3.00). The Cavaliers’ ground game has also struggled, churning out 128.4 yards per game (83rd nationally).
North Carolina hasn’t been able to get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season – 99th in sacks (1.2), 94th in tackles for loss (4.8) – but the Tar Heels have been solid everywhere else on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 38th in yardage (331.4) and 45th in scoring (21.2).
Davis has yet to defeat Virginia during his time as UNC’s head coach, but a victory on Saturday would match the program’s longest winning streak under his direction.