College Football Preview: UNC vs. Virginia
Published 12:00 am Friday, September 16, 2011
CHAPEL HILL ó Jonathan Cooper couldn’t hide his disbelief when told North Carolina hasn’t won an Atlantic Coast Conference opener in more than a decade.
“I don’t know, wow,” the offensive lineman said. “Ten? You said 10 consecutive?”
While the program has seemingly climbed out of its perennial struggles under John Bunting, the Tar Heels still carry a bad run of performances in league openers heading into Saturday’s game against Virginia. They haven’t won their ACC opener since winning at Wake Forest in 2000.
“The players, I can tell you for sure, aren’t thinking about that,” UNC safety Matt Merletti said. “I didn’t even know that stat. It really does not play a factor in how we approach a game at all.”
Maybe not, but the skid has outlasted the tenures of two head coaches (Bunting, Butch Davis) and has kept the Tar Heels constantly fighting uphill in the league standings. The Tar Heels (2-0) have lost the 10 straight league openers by an average margin of 15 points, though that number is inflated by a few lopsided losses under Bunting.
Three of the four under Davis came by six or fewer points, including last year’s 30-24 loss to Georgia Tech in which the Tar Heels had a dozen players sitting out due to the NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct.
Yet Merletti pointed out the Tar Heels ended an uglier streak against the Cavaliers (2-0) just a year ago, when they won 44-10 to end a 14-game road losing skid in the series. Beating the Cavaliers again would give the Tar Heels their first back-to-back wins in against the longtime rival in 29 years.
North Carolina brings one of the nation’s top defenses into this matchup, ranking third nationally in stopping the run (30 yards per game) and seventh in sacks (nine). But the Tar Heels have yet to force a turnover after racking up 58 interceptions over the past three seasons when interim coach Everett Withers served as Davis’ defensive coordinator.
While Virginia coach Mike London joked that he hopes the Tar Heels’ takeaway drought continues another week, North Carolina’s defense is focused on reversing that trend immediately. That’s particularly important considering the Tar Heels edged Rutgers last weekend despite committing five turnovers, including three on interceptions thrown by sophomore Bryn Renner.
“We’ve had chances at turnovers,” defensive end Kareem Martin said. “We dropped a couple of picks early (against Rutgers). Turnovers are hard to come by. We just have to take advantage when we have the chance to get them.”
Withers said Thursday that the Tar Heels don’t have any eligibility concerns for the game despite the NCAA returning to campus this week. The school has described the visit as “follow-up work,” but Withers said he expects to have “our full allotment of players” and that everyone has practiced as usual.
The Cavaliers have won the past two meetings in Chapel Hill, including 16-3 two years ago. They ended their own frustrating skid ó a seven-game road losing streak ó with last weekend’s 34-31 win at Indiana. The Cavaliers won on a field goal as time expired, capping a comeback in which they scored 11 points in the final 96 seconds.
Behind a rushing attack averaging better than 200 yards, Virginia can earn its first 3-0 start in six years.
“They came into our place and beat us last year and it’s been a rivalry for a long time,” Virginia defensive end Jake Snyder said. “We’re very passionate about it, everyone’s excited about it and we can’t wait to play them.”
The game also carries the cultural significance as the second ACC game between two black head coaches. The first occurred last year between London’s Cavaliers and former Miami coach Randy Shannon.
“Really, it just shows a little progress within the ACC, which I think is good,” Withers said. “When you’re playing whoever you’re playing, it’s about us. It’s not really about the other team, so I haven’t really thought a whole lot about it. The progress is good for the conference and for college football.”