By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During a four-game stretch in which it allowed 204 points and 2,015 yards, the University of North Carolina football team lost four times and saw its record drop to 2-4.
Even so, UNC coach Larry Fedora said this week, his players “were not down. They were not depressed. They were anxious to get back into the win column.”
That sums up the mood this week around UVa coach Mike London’s program. After each of their first two losses, the Cavaliers responded with a victory, and they’ll look to do the same Saturday against the Tar Heels at Scott Stadium.
On Homecomings weekend, UVa (4-3, 2-1) hosts Carolina (3-4, 1-2) at 12:30 p.m. in an ACC game that will move one of these Coastal Division rivals closer to bowl-eligibility.
UNC ended its four-game skid last weekend in Chapel Hill, rallying for a 48-43 victory over Georgia Tech. Earlier that day, in nearby Durham, a 20-13 loss to Duke had ended Virginia’s two-game winning streak.
“The loss last week, you put those things behind you and you move forward to do the things that have enabled us to win some games this year,” UVa coach Mike London said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what type of team we have coming off a tough loss.”
The Wahoos have dropped four straight in this series, which is known as “the South’s Oldest Rivalry.” For UVa’s seniors, including offensive guard Conner Davis, Saturday will be their final encounter with the Heels.
“We gotta get this win for this program,” Davis said Wednesday.
For the first time since Sept. 20, when he sprained an ankle against BYU, quarterback Greyson Lambert is expected to play. Lambert, a redshirt sophomore who started UVa’s first four games, “has been very productive in practice,” London said Wednesday. “I feel good about where Greyson is from a health standpoint.”
Another redshirt sophomore, Matt Johns, has started the Cavaliers’ past three games, and he passed for a career-high 325 yards against Duke. Don’t expect an announcement before Saturday about which quarterback will start against UNC. This much, though, is known: Virginia figures to need a strong performance from its offense to win Saturday.
Behind junior quarterback Marquise Williams, Carolina leads the ACC in scoring offense (38.7 points per game) and is second in total offense (453.1 yards per game).
“We’ve been able to get a lot of yards in games, but just because you get a lot of yards, it doesn’t mean much,” Davis said. Virginia needs touchdowns, he added, “especially against an opponent like North Carolina that’s scored a lot of points.”
In each of its three losses, UVa has totaled more yards than its opponent. Against the ACC’s worst defense — UNC is allowing 43.3 points and 522.3 yards per game — the `Hoos are likely to pile up plenty of yardage Saturday, but they do not want to rely on the right foot of junior Ian Frye, who has made 14 of 16 field-goal attempts this season.
“Any time you get within the 20 yard line, you want to get touchdowns,” London said. “You definitely want to get points, but you want to get touchdowns.”
Virginia’s defense left Durham dissatisfied too. For only the second time in two seasons under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, the `Hoos neither forced a turnover nor recorded a sack.
“It was extremely tough,” senior linebacker Daquan Romero said. “The quarterback did a great job getting the ball out of his hands. Turnovers are just a big momentum shift, not just for the defense, but for the entire team.”
Junior defensive lineman Mike Moore echoed Romero. “When we get takeaways, we know it brings the team to life,” Moore said.
Those takeaways are always welcome, but UVa’s offense can’t rely on them, tailback Khalek Shepherd said.
“That’s not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to protect the ball and score points,” said Shepherd, a fifth-year senior.
“What we want to do is to make sure that at the end of the game we have more points than the other team. Whether the defense is having a great game or not, our responsibility is to help them out.”
UVa has faced talented dual-threat quarterbacks this season, most notably UCLA’s Brett Hundley and BYU’s Taysom Hill, and Williams is of that caliber. He leads UNC in rushing and pass yards and torched Georgia Tech last weekend.
“He’s as good as anybody right now that we’ve seen,” said London, who noted Williams’ “ability to just take off and make a play. We’ve seen that game after game.”
Virginia learned valuable lessons about defending mobile quarterbacks in its game at BYU, outside linebacker Max Valles said.
“The biggest thing we can take from that and apply is to break down on your tackle,” Valles said.
Pursuit also will be important for the Cavaliers, London said, “because when you have dynamic guys like [Williams who] make one person miss, then you have to have others that are following, that are chasing.”
Like BYU, North Carolina runs a no-huddle attack designed to “get you of position, try to wear you out,” London said, “and it’s going to be important for us to get lined up, have the type of defensive calls that can help put us in the best position [against] whatever plays that they may run.
“This is a very fast team, very athletic team, but we’ll rise to the occasion.”
After Saturday, three of UVa’s final four regular-season games are on the road. The Cavaliers’ home finale is Nov. 22 against Coastal Division rival Miami, which humbled Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Thursday night.
After winning only two games in 2013, the `Hoos have exceeded outsiders’ expectations this season. Picked to finish last in the Coastal, Virginia is tied for first with Duke and Pittsburgh. Two more victories would make UVa bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
“We’ve had an OK season so far,” Shepherd said. “We want to have a better season.”