Virginia entered the 2012 season with high expectations. Second-year head coach Mike London led the Cavaliers to a surprising 8-5 record and a Chick-Fil-A Bowl appearance in 2011. With seven starters returning on offense in 2012 in addition to five on defense, many believed Virginia would compete for another reputable bowl appearance.
Following home wins over FCS opponent Richmond and a Penn State team in disarray, Virginia (4-6, 2-4 ACC) lost six straight games, including home games to Louisiana Tech and ACC bottom-dwellers Wake Forest and Maryland. During that six game stretch, the Wahoo's turned the ball over 16 times and ranked last out of 120 FBS teams in turnover margin (-2.0).
The season could have easily spiraled out of control with games against stellar opponents N.C. State and Miami in the two weeks following an off week on Oct. 27. However, the Cavaliers refused to lie down and destroyed N.C. State 33-6 in Raleigh before coming home and shocking the Coastal-leading Hurricanes 41-40 on a touchdown pass with six seconds remaining in the game.
The key to Virginia's sudden turnaround has been turnovers. The Cavaliers committed just two turnovers over the past two weeks and forced six, including five against N.C. State alone. Even though Virginia still ranks last in the ACC in turnover margin (-1.20), it is obvious the improvement in ball security has led to better results on the scoreboard.
Offensively, the quarterback situation has been a whirlwind for Virginia this year. Junior Michael Rocco (136-of-221, 1585 yards, 12 TD, 8 INT) entered the season as the starter. However, many fans were hoping Alabama transfer Phillip Sims (103- of-179, 1203 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT) would get some playing time as well. After seeing increased reps through the first five games of the season, Sims replaced Rocco as the starter for Oct. 6 game against Duke. At the time, Rocco had thrown just six touchdowns and eight interceptions.
One week later, Sims was benched against Maryland in favor of Rocco as the Cavaliers lost for the fifth straight game. Sims got another shot against Wake Forest, but was once again unable to lead Virginia to a victory. Against N.C. State, London unveiled a two-quarterback system in which both Rocco and Sims saw significant playing time. So far, so good as the Cavaliers are 2-0 with both quarterbacks combining for six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The Virginia offense is ranked 48th nationally in total offense (419.10 ypg), but 87th (9th ACC) in scoring offense (24.60 ppg). The Wahoo defense has undeniably been the stalwart of the team, ranking 33rd in total defense (349.10 ypg), thanks to an experienced linebacker core that returned all three starters from 2011.
"You know, when you look at it, when you look at their team, you can see Southern Miss in the style of defense that they play and obviously in the style of offense. Coach Fedora was successful at Southern Miss and what he did there, and he brought a large part, if not all, of his coaching staff to Carolina and implemented that scheme and that system that was productive for him. So we have looked at some of the Southern Miss tape, particularly when we played them. But when you look at the games that they've played this year, you see a Southern Miss philosophy. You see how many games, 7-8 games now, so that's been part of the evaluation and preparation is they are very similar to what was successful for them when he was at Southern Miss." – London on looking at tape from Southern Mississippi's 30-24 victory at Virginia last season
"It's like two different teams actually. You see them in the last three or four weeks the way they are playing they got a lot of confidence. They're taking care of the football. They're moving the ball around pretty good. They're throwing nicely. They're running effectively. Defensively, they've been solid all the way through. I think they've been solid defensively in every game." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora
Matchups to Watch
Virginia's Steve Greer vs. UNC's Gio Bernard
While this may not be a true one-on-one matchup, it will be interesting to watch how Virginia uses Greer, an All-ACC inside linebacker, to combat the ACC's leading rusher, Bernard (142 car, 1008 yards, 11 TD; 38 rec, 411 yards, 4 TD).
Greer (95 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks) is second in the ACC in tackles and leads a Virginia defense that ranks 43rd nationally against the run (143.80 ypg). The Wahoo's struggled to keep Miami freshman running back Duke Johnson in check last week. Despite 13 tackles by Greer, Johnson ran for 150 yards on just 16 carries to go along with a kickoff return for a touchdown as well as a touchdown pass.
Few can match the versatility of Johnson, but Bernard is just as capable of hurting a defense in numerous ways. Bernard ranks among the national leaders in rushing yards, punt return yards as well as total yards. The redshirt sophomore was one of the few bright spots in North Carolina's 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech. Bernard eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark with 78 yards rushing and also added 92 yards receiving, including a remarkable 78-yard touchdown reception.
Following the 50-point outing against Georgia Tech last week, the North Carolina offense now ranks 15th in total offense (488.70 ypg) and 10th in scoring offense (40.50 ppg). Bernard leads the nations 29th best rushing attack (201 ypg).
"Our approach will have to be to know where he is at all times and how we kick it to him and how we defend him," London said. "It's going to be crucial for guys to be running to the ball, particularly we've seen him break through some arm tackles because it looks like he's so strong lower body wise, he runs through would be tacklers. He's a phenomenal talent for them for sure."
Greer is not only Virginia's leading tackler, but the senior is also the leader of the defense. Much like Kevin Reddick at North Carolina, Greer is surrounded by younger players who up to him for emotional and physical leadership. Greer recorded 92 tackles as a freshman and currently ranks ninth in Virginia history in career tackles despite being sidelined with the occasional injury.
Greer is exceptional at defending the short and intermediate routes and has a nose for the backfield on run plays. North Carolina's offensive line will need to shed their blocks and get to the next level to prevent Greer from making a play. Bernard is an exceptional player, but Greer has the ability to find the ball, is rarely fooled and does not miss many tackles. The Tar Heel offensive line and Bernard must focus on taking Greer out of the play rather than relying on talent alone to escape the star linebacker.
"So you see there is a level of not only athletic skill but a level of being a smart player, because as I said, I described about those underneath routes and how they threaten the defense, threaten him, and he's been able to make a play," London said. "He studies the game, and he practiced hard. His preparation is very, very good. A lot of the young guys learn from him about how he studies, how he prepares, and just he has a nose for the football, I guess."
Virginia's Oday Aboushi vs. UNC's Pass Rush
Despite an abysmal performance last week against Georgia Tech, North Carolina still ranks fourth nationally and leads the ACC in tackles for loss (7.9 per game). The Tar Heels also rank third in the league in sacks (3 per game), but have averaged just two sacks per game over the past five games.
The senior Aboushi is one of the best offensive tackles in the ACC. He was named to the second-team All-ACC team before the season, was twice named ACC lineman of the week in 2011 and is a projected second or third round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Aboushi will be fighting off a North Carolina defensive front desperately trying to get to the quarterback on Thursday night. The Tar Heels blitz more often than not and when they are unable to pressure the opposing quarterback, it spells bad news for a struggling North Carolina secondary.
Georgia Tech threw for 208 yards last week against North Carolina, which is the most for the Yellow Jackets against a FBS opponent this season. North Carolina has now surrendered career highs in passing yardage to Wake Forest's Tanner Price, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, N.C. State's Mike Glennon as well as Georgia Tech's Vad Lee. In all of those games, with the exception of N.C. State, the Tar Heels managed just one sack.
It is important for pass rushers Kevin Reddick (5.5 sacks) and Sylvester Williams (5 sacks) to pressure Rocco and Sims so neither has a big day against a Tar Heel defensive backfield that ranks 83rd in pass defense (254.20 ypg). Neither quarterback will be mistaken for Andrew Luck anytime soon, but being an accurate passer is not a prerequisite to having a big day against North Caroina.
"It's not like it is two different offenses," Fedora said. "It's just two different players. They both bring a little bit something different, but they are still running their offense. It would be different if they were changing offenses according to the quarterback but that's not what they are doing."
Defensive end Kareem Martin (3 sacks), who has been slowed by a nagging foot injury, will likely see a lot of Aboushi on the end of the line. If Martin is able to step up and force Aboushi to spend the majority of his time solely on him that will open things up in the middle for Williams as well as blitzing linebackers.