After a near-flawless opener against James Madison (42-10), North Carolina was plagued by turnovers and penalties last Saturday against Rutgers before escaping with a 24-22 victory. Virginia throttled William & Mary, 40-3, in its opener and earned a tough road win against Indiana (34-31) last week.
North Carolina is looking to win its first ACC opener since the 2000 season. That 10-game losing streak includes a pair of defeats at the hands of the Cavaliers, but its important to note that most of UNC's players, including sophomore defensive end Kareem Martin, were in elementary school when the streak began.
"I'm not aware of that – that's the first time I've heard it," Martin replied when asked about the 10 straight losses in conference openers. "We just know this is a big game coming up this week because it kicks off the conference. One of our goals this season is to win the Coastal Division. We start off with Virginia, which is one of our rivals, so we need to get this win."
Martin (8 tkl, 2.0 TFL, sack) earned defensive player of the game honors against Rutgers in helping North Carolina hold the Scarlet Knights to one net rushing yard, the lowest for UNC since Wake Forest posted negative-two yards in '00.
The Tar Heels currently rank third nationally in run defense (30.0 ypg) and 14th in total defense (227.5 ypg).
"They are a very, very talented team that can run so our work is cut out for us," UVa head coach Mike London said. "Their strength is their guys up front, their linebackers."
Virginia's ground game will present a much stiffer challenge for North Carolina this week. The Cavaliers rank fourth in the ACC and 33rd nationally in rushing offense (201.0 ypg, 7 TD) behind a veteran offensive line that returned four starters from last season's squad. Running backs Perry Jones (134 rushing yards, TD; 102 receiving yards) and Kevin Parks (151 yards, 5 TD) have taken advantage of their front five to keep the pressure off first-year starting quarterback Michael Rocco (36-of-58 passing, 365 yards, 2 INT).
"I think Virginia has a talented offensive line," UNC head coach Everett Withers said. "It'll be an upgrade probably from last week, offensive line-wise, so we're going to have to play really well inside. We feel like we're up to the challenge."
Despite North Carolina's stingy defensive numbers, the Tar Heels have yet to force a turnover and are currently tied for 115th in turnover margin (minus-3.0).
"If they could wait one more game, I'd appreciate that," London replied when asked about UNC's inability to create turnovers thus far.
Virginia's defense has been equally as stout, ranking 20th in total defense (244.0 ypg) and 38th in scoring defense (17.0 ppg). The Cavaliers also rank ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense (78.16), but will encounter their toughest test of the season against UNC quarterback Bryn Renner (42-of-49 passing, 550 yards, 3 TD), who ranks 12th nationally in passing efficiency (183.88) despite four interceptions.
Preseason All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield will likely draw the assignment of covering UNC preseason All-ACC wide receiver Dwight Jones (15 receptions, 251 yards, 3 TD) in a pivotal matchup.
Another intriguing matchup will occur in the kicking game as Virginia's 13th-ranked kickoff coverage unit (16.7 yards per return) will attempt to slow down UNC freshman return specialist T.J. Thorpe (26.75 ypr; 2nd ACC, 28th overall). The Durham, N.C. native set a state record with five kickoff returns for touchdown as a junior at Jordan High School.
"[Thorpe] has a knack for locating the ball, catching the ball - obviously, in the return game, you want a guy who can catch the ball - and has some vision, and is not afraid to get hit," Withers said. "Especially on kickoffs. If a guy will take it and go north and south and follow his blocking, we feel good about him."
Both teams have relied on true freshmen in the first two games – Virginia has played 12 rookies, while North Carolina has utilized 10.
Kickoff is set for 3:30pm on Saturday at Kenan Stadium (ESPNU).