The Tar Heels (3-5, 2-3 ACC) are favored by 13.5 points in the 118th edition of the Oldest Rivalry in the South. UNC leads the all-time series with Virginia, 60-53-4, and was won three straight by an average margin of 23.0 points per game.
The Cavaliers (2-7, 0-5 ACC) have lost six consecutive games this season, including five by double digits. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have won two straight with hopes of securing their first bowl bid under Larry Fedora by winning at least three of their final four games.
That goal may have taken a significant blow earlier this week when the school announced that Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Saturday’s win at N.C. State, although backup Marquise Williams (40-of-66 passing, 537 yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) has played well enough to keep the offense rolling along.
“I think they all have complete confidence in Marquise,” Fedora said. “We were fortunate that Marquise has had as many reps as he has and so I don’t think the guys – obviously they hurt for Bryn and for his situation – but they’ve got a lot of confidence in Marquise.”
Senior left tackle James Hurst doesn’t expect Williams’s full-time insertion to change much for the starters around him.
“I think, if anything, it’s going to open up a few different things and give the defense a different look,” Hurst said. “So people might be less prepared for what he’s going to do. It’s our job to protect the passer, regardless of who it is. When we were rotating quarterbacks in and out, sometimes you don’t even know who’s back there.”
The Tar Heel offense, which is ranked 64th nationally at 410.4 yards per game, will encounter a banged up Jon Tenuta defense that is giving up 417.8 yards and 32.6 points per game. Head coach Mike London announced earlier this week that three-year starting cornerback Demetrious Nicholson is out for the season due to turf toe. Sophomore cornerback Maurice Canady is also out, leaving the Cavs exposed in the back end.
Offensively, quarterback David Watford (207-of-349 passing, 1,845 yards, 7 TD, 10 INT) has struggled to find consistency directing a Cavalier offense that ranks 91st nationally in both total offense (370.8) and red zone touchdown percentage (56.25).
“There are a lot of things that we can obviously be better at, particularly when you get down inside the red zone,” London said. “That's a critical point of being able to score points, and we haven't scored enough points. However you evaluate that, the bottom line offensively is to put points on the board, and we have to find guys that can do that.”
Veteran tailback Kevin Parks has proven in the ground game in churning out 696 yards and nine touchdowns on 160 carries this season.
“That running back they’ve got is really a good player,” Fedora said, referring to Parks. “And now they’re getting the ball out in space to the [Taquan] Mizzell kid. The quarterback can run and throw – he’s a dual-threat guy – so he can beat you with his legs and his arm. I think they’ve done a nice job. They do a lot of things with formations and motions trying to get your defense misaligned.”
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s defense has cut down on the busted plays in the secondary that served as backbreakers over the past two seasons. The result has been improved statistics in recent weeks as the Tar Heels have held three of their last four opponents to under 390 yards of total offense.