North Carolina senior receiver Mack Hollins, who learned earlier this week that his college playing days were over, stood on the sideline, his arm in a sling, cheering on his teammates, encouraging them, yelling for them.
The Tar Heels were without two other regular starters on the offensive line, too. For one day, at least, UNC didn’t miss what it was without, and it methodically imposed its will on Saturday during an 35-14 victory at Virginia.
After years of prolonged misery against the Cavaliers, the Tar Heels are the ones inflicting pain these days in what’s known as The Oldest Rivalry in the South. Their victory on Saturday was their seventh consecutive against Virginia, and UNC also won its ninth consecutive road game.
Why UNC won
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The simplest explanation is that the Tar Heels are simply better. They won on Saturday without three important offensive starters – Hollins and linemen Caleb Peterson and Jon Heck – and while their absences are noteworthy, they weren’t noticeable at Scott Stadium.
Virginia, meanwhile, faces a long road ahead to rebuild under first-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Tar Heels controlled the game in all aspects, amassing 486 yards (Virginia finished with 253) while forcing the Cavaliers to punt nine times.
The Cavaliers kept it close early, and tied the score at 7 with a trick-play touchdown with about 5½ minutes remaining before halftime. UNC responded quickly and never relinquished control.
What it means
In victory, the Tar Heels kept pace with Virginia Tech in the ACC’s Coastal Division race. Both teams have one conference loss, but the Hokies own the tiebreaker by virtue of their victory in Chapel Hill earlier this month.
UNC didn’t have a lot to gain, necessarily, with a victory on Saturday. The Tar Heels were expected to win and win relatively comfortably. The Tar Heels did have a lot to lose, though, and they played well enough to ensure there was no chance that would happen.
Virginia tied the score at 7 with about 5½ minutes to play before halftime and, to that point, the Tar Heels had faltered offensively and had failed to score on four of their first five drives. Another stalled drive would have put the Cavaliers in position to take the lead entering halftime.
Instead, the Tar Heels used some trickery of their own. On a first down on the Virginia 40-yard line, running back T.J. Logan lined up in the wildcat formation. He took the snap and handed off to Ryan Switzer, who threw it back to quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Bug Howard. The play seemed to serve as a catalyst for UNC, which remained in control.
3.3. That’s how many yards Virginia averaged, per play. The Cavaliers aren’t known for their offensive prowess but, even so, UNC’s defensive renaissance continued on Saturday. Before backups entered the game late in the fourth quarter, UNC had allowed 106 rushing yards.
Trubisky continued his spectacular play in normal weather conditions. He completed 24 of his 31 attempts for 310 yards and three touchdowns – two of them on passes of at least 40 yards. There was the 40-yarder to Howard and then, in the fourth quarter, a 46-yard touchdown pass to Austin Proehl. That sent Virginia supporters fleeing for the exits at Scott Stadium.
After playing on the first eight weekends of the college football season, UNC’s bye week has finally arrived. The Tar Heels enter it in good position, after what were probably their two most complete performances of the season. While some of UNC’s injury woes won’t be solved – Hollins and offensive guard Caleb Peterson are out for the season – the bye offers a chance to heal in other ways.