By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The ACC’s top offense, statistically at least, belongs to Virginia’s next opponent. North Carolina ranks first in the league in scoring (40.6 ppg), first in total offense (482.2 yards per game), second in rushing offense (218.5 ypg), and third in pass offense (263.7 ypg).
For UVA linebacker Eric Gallon, that means an especially thin margin for error Saturday.
Gallon, a 6-2, 215-pound true freshman from Lakeland, Fla., is set to make his first college start in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Virginia (2-4 overall, 1-1 ACC) meets Coastal Division rival UNC (5-1, 2-0) at 3:30 p.m. at Kenan Stadium.
“He’s an athletic young man that can run,” UVA head coach Mike London said.
In overtime against Syracuse last weekend at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers’ starting weak-side linebacker, junior Zach Bradshaw, was disqualified for targeting. So Bradshaw must sit out the first half in Chapel Hill, and his replacement is Gallon, who’s appeared in four games this season.
The key for Gallon, linebackers coach Mike Archer said, is to “just what he’s coached to do. The whole thing against [the Tar Heels is], if you don’t give up explosive plays, you’ve got a chance to beat `em.”
Big plays have burned the Wahoos repeatedly this season. Virginia’s defense has allowed 33 plays of at least 20 yards, and 19 of those plays have gone for 30 or more yards.
Against Wake Forest last week, UNC fell behind 7-0. But the Heels scored 29 points in the second quarter, “all on explosive plays,” Archer said, and went on to win 50-14.
“It’s not just [Gallon], but if he’s involved in something that involves an explosive play, then we’ve got issues,” Archer said.
Gallon is one of seven true freshmen to have played for the `Hoos this season. UVA chose to use Gallon for several reasons, Archer said.
“No. 1, he could run,” Archer said. “You could see in training camp that he had athletic ability. He’s a pretty instinctive blitzer. Plus, he played football in Florida. Kids coming out of high schools that have spring ball normally are a little bit farther along fundamentally, which I think he was over some of these other young guys.
“So in August it became apparent to us that he was a guy that we would put on [special] teams to start with, not knowing that [Bradshaw] would get disqualified last week.”
Gallon, who graduated from Lakeland Christian School, also had scholarship offers from such schools as Cincinnati, South Florida, Buffalo, Bowling Green and Army.
His father, Eric Gallon, played football for head coach Bill Snyder at Kansas State. The elder Gallon coaches the running backs at Tennessee State. He was on the staff at Youngstown State in 2013 and ’14.
SHORT-HANDED: On the injury report UVA released Thursday, junior fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves is listed as out for the UNC game, and junior tailback Albert Reid is questionable, each for medical reasons.
After Reid took a blow to the head in the second overtime last weekend against Syracuse, he left the game. In the third OT, Ellis scored the touchdown that gave UVA a 44-38 victory.
LaChaston Smith, a 6-0, 235-pound junior who began the season at tailback, recently was moved to fullback and is expected to back up Croce against UNC.
MULTIPLE WEAPONS: North Carolina’s leading rusher is tailback Elijah Hood, a 6-0, 220-pound sophomore who’s fifth in the ACC at 90.8 yards per game.
“He’s demonstrated that he can be a game-breaker, a guy that can get big yards, and he’s an explosive runner,” London said.
Also dangerous is UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, a 6-2, 225-pound senior. Among ACC players, Williams ranks ninth in rushing (67.5 yards per game).
Williams also has passed for 1,127 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s completing 64.1 percent of his attempts.
“He’s `Quise,” UVA wide receiver T.J. Thorpe, a transfer from UNC, said of his former teammate.
“I mean, he’s not the average quarterback. He’s big, he can run, he’s a strong guy. My personal opinion, he doesn’t necessarily get as much credit as he’s due as far as a thrower. But he’s a guy who adds a different kind of dynamic to an offense. If I was a defensive coordinator, he’s definitely one you got to account for.”
UVA defensive tackle David Dean agreed.
“He’s a huge weapon,” Dean said of Williams. “He’s smart, he’s athletic and runs the system effectively. He’s definitely a point of emphasis for us this week. We have to try to keep him in the pocket, make him make decisions in the pocket, and take away the quarterback running game early. It’s tough to do with him because they can do so much with him, and they have other weapons as well.”
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s charges faced another mobile quarterback last weekend, Syracuse’s Eric Dungey, and they expect that experience to help them in Chapel Hill.
“We didn’t do a good job in the first half [against Syracuse] with tackling, and Coach Tenuta just told us, we can’t miss layups,” junior defensive tackle Donte Wilkins said.
“When we’ve got open tackles, we’ve got to make those tackles, and we gotta get `em to the ground. He said there’s no such thing as an ugly tackle as long as we get `em to the ground. So going into the second half, we just had that mentality that we’ve just got to get `em down. We can’t let them get these extra yards. So it definitely helped us out going into this week playing UNC.”
RUNNING RAMPANT: Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said he hasn’t been surprised by his team’s effectiveness on the ground.
“I think the guys are meeting expectations there,” Fedora said. “We had almost all of our linemen back. They got a lot of experience last year, so they’ve really gelled. They’re coming off the ball well. They’re doing a really nice job.
“Our running backs are running hard. Our guys are blocking on the perimeter. Then you have a quarterback that can also outnumber you and run the ball just like a running back. We’ve got the tools to be able to do it. This year our guys are taking that on their shoulders and making sure it happens.”
FAMILIAR TERRITORY: Thorpe graduated from Carolina in December and enrolled at UVA the next month. In three seasons at UNC, he caught 42 passes for 574 yards and five touchdowns. He also returned 59 kickoffs for 1,448 yards and one TD.
Thorpe scored the winning touchdown in the Tar Heels’ comeback victory over the Cavaliers at Scott Stadium last season.
“I think all of our guys know him,” Fedora said. “They’ve played against him daily in practice, our defense. They understand what his skill set is. He’s a quality, quality receiver … He can beat you deep, beat you underneath, he can be physical.”
Thorpe was among the Virginia players who stopped by John Paul Jones Arena on Monday for the weekly media gathering. As expected, he fielded a barrage of question about his ties to UNC.
Thorpe, who’s from Durham, N.C., told reporters about a meeting he had Sunday with Virginia wide receivers coach Marques Hagans.
“They slid the scouting report [on UNC} underneath his door,” Thorpe said Monday, “and when I picked it up, just looking at all the guys I used to be in the locker room with, it was kind of weird. But at the end of the day I’m glad I’m in the position I’m in now. I have a new set of brothers, a new family, and as far as I’m concerned, [UNC is] another opponent, another opportunity.”
Thorpe, who broke his right clavicle in training camp, missed Virginia’s first two games and was in for only five plays in the third. He’s caught eight passes for 176 yards and one TD as a Cavalier.
“He brings a lot of fun to the team,” junior quarterback Matt Johns said. “He’s a very loose guy. He’s not very tense. He plays relaxed, and he’s so quick and he can do so many different things … He’s just a competitor. He knows this is a big weekend for him, but he also knows that this is about this team and not himself.
“He’s a selfless player. He’s fit into the system, and since Day One that he got here in spring ball he’s been a great part of this team. We’re just so happy to have him.”
HEATING UP: The Cavalier known as “Smoke” –tailback Taquan Mizzell — has been especially effective in the passing game.
Mizzell, a 5-10, 195-pound junior from Virginia Beach, has a team-high 35 receptions for 409 yards and three touchdowns this season. Only senior wideout Canaan Severin, with 418, has more receiving yards for the `Hoos.
“I’ve been around Giovani Bernard and I thought, for the longest [time], I’d never see another running back who could catch out of the backfield like he does,” said Thorpe, who played at UNC with Bernard, now a Cincinnati Bengal. “But I can honestly say Smoke is the best receiving running back I’ve ever played with.
“He runs routes like a receiver, and then he has the fight in him to catch it and turn into a running back again. He’s very versatile and he has a good feel for coverages, defenders, how to make people miss … He’s just a fighter. And that’s the other thing about him, he wants to win and you can see it and [it’s] contagious.”
As a sophomore, Mizzell caught 39 passes but averaged only 6.9 yards per reception. He’s averaging 11.7 yards per catch this season.
“He’s just playing with a different level of attitude,” Johns said.
Mizzell is an “example of a guy that has gotten better as the opportunities have been presented,” London said, “and we’re benefiting from it, and we’ll continue to keep trying to find ways to get him the ball.”
Asked Monday if Mizzell is a wideout or a running back, Johns smiled. “He’s both,” Johns said. “He can do it all.”
Mizzell leads Virginia in rushing, with 66 carries for 254 yards and two touchdowns.