CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Eighth-ranked North Carolina has spent two games shutting down running games better than anybody in the country to start the season. The challenge will be much tougher against Khalil Herbert and 19th-ranked Virginia Tech on Saturday.
The Tar Heels (2-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are allowing 54 yards rushing per game, best among 74 Bowl Subdivision teams to have played so far. But the Hokies (2-0, 2-0) have twice run for 300-plus yards to rank third nationally at 319 yards per game, while Herbert – a graduate transfer from Kansas – is averaging a national-best 156 yards.
“They have a really good plan on running the football,” UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said. “They know how to do it. They do a lot of things to create conflict for you in the run game.”
The Tar Heels allowed 68 yards rushing against Syracuse in the Sept. 12 opener, then allowed 40 yards last week at Boston College. But coach Mack Brown pointed out that the Orange were shorthanded at running back with a rebuilt offensive line that surrendered seven sacks, while the Eagles ran it just 19 times.
“I do think we’re good on defense,” Brown said. “But I think those stats are skewed because of who we’ve played in the first two weeks.”
The Hokies have been relentless in running while being shorthanded due to coronavirus and injury issues, posting their first consecutive 300-yard outputs since joining the ACC in the 2004 season. They ran it 41 times for 314 yards against North Carolina State, then 50 times for 324 yards against Duke with Herbert running for 207 yards.
Herbert thrived against the Blue Devils on special teams as well, returning a kickoff 83 yards and finishing with a school-record 357 all-purpose yards.
“I do think we need to make sure we’re not overusing” Herbert, Hokies coach Justin Fuente said. “And we have really good guys that can fill in and not have a huge drop-off that I feel really comfortable with.”
Some things to know about Saturday’s Virginia Tech-UNC matchup:
Fuente isn’t sure exactly how things will look for the Hokies roster by Saturday after following coronavirus testing and protocols.
They were down 23 players and two full-time coaches against N.C. State. That number fell to 21 players and two coaches for the Duke game, with the secondary hit particularly hard.
“We were really on thin ice there obviously in the secondary this past week,” Fuente said. “Hopefully it gets better as this week goes on.”
Virginia Tech’s list of sidelined players includes quarterback Hendon Hooker, a returning starter. Hooker was unavailable for the first game, then dressed but didn’t play in the second as Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister made his second straight start.
Fuente wouldn’t commit publicly to who would start Saturday.
UNC has an offense loaded with returnees that include quarterback Sam Howell with 1,000-yard receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. But the Tar Heels haven’t had the same success with pushing the ball downfield for big gains, with Newsome having just three catches for 31 yards so far.
Brown is telling his team to play with more patience as opponents take away the deep ball and be willing to take shorter gains.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of taking what they give us,” Howell said.
If the past two meetings are any indication, expect a close – and possibly wild – finish between the Tar Heels and Hokies.
Two years ago, the Hokies scored the go-ahead touchdown with 19 seconds left in a 22-19 road win. That came after the Tar Heels were on the verge of taking a two-score lead only to see Michael Carter fumble near the goal line, setting up the Hokies’ 18-play, 98-yard winning drive.
Last year, Virginia Tech held off UNC 43-41 in six overtimes, the longest game in ACC history.
(A FEW) FANS IN ATTENDANCE
This is UNC’s first home game since Gov. Roy Cooper announced the state would ease public -gathering restrictions related to the pandemic by allowing schools to fill 7% of their stadium capacity for fans. That means 3,535 fans can attend in 50,500-seat Kenan Stadium.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap