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UNC vs. Virginia Tech: Things to watch

UNC running back T.J. Logan, seen here in sunnier conditions, could receive a lot of work on Saturday amid the rain and wind in the forecast during UNC’s game against Virginia Tech.
UNC running back T.J. Logan, seen here in sunnier conditions, could receive a lot of work on Saturday amid the rain and wind in the forecast during UNC’s game against Virginia Tech. rwillett@newsobserver.com

As I look out the windows here in the home office, situated less than a mile from Kenan Stadium, the tree limbs are bouncing in the breeze and steady, hard rain is falling from a sky that couldn’t be much grayer. Gameday forcecast today here in Chapel Hill: 68 degrees, rain and wind between 28 and 33 mph.

Those will be the conditions around 3:30, when North Carolina and Virginia Tech begin a game of monumental importance in the Coastal Division race. The good news: The conditions, and especially the wind, are supposed to improve later in the day as Hurricane Matthew moves farther east.

Nonetheless, so much for the story I wrote leading into this about Mitch Trubisky and Ryan Switzer, and their close bond that is finally translating to the field after so much waiting. In these conditions, it seems unlikely that Switzer will continue his streak of double-digit receptions.

Or maybe he will. Who knows.

Some pregame thoughts and things to watch from here in Chapel Hill:

1. How does the weather affect both teams?

These are likely to be the worst conditions UNC has encountered in a while, though the Tar Heels have set a precedent, at least, for playing well in the rain. Most of their comeback at Georgia Tech last season happened in the rain, which didn't slow UNC's rally from a 21-0 deficit. And last season against Delaware the rain did little to dampen the offense, especially after Trubisky took over for a struggling Marquise Williams.

It's not so much the rain that's of concern for UNC, though. It's the wind. If the winds are indeed around 30 mph at game time, how does that affect Trubisky and the Tar Heels' passing offense? How does that affect the kicking game? UNC coach Larry Fedora earlier this week didn't seem bothered by the inevitability of rain. Wind is a different story, and it seems logical that wind would most affect both passing offenses today.

In case you're curious, UNC has passed this season on 56.2 percent of its plays. Virginia Tech has passed on 38.8 percent of its plays. The Hokies have a good thing going with first-year coach Justin Fuente and quarterback Jerod Evans (and a good receiving corps led by Isaiah Ford) but, clearly, the pass has been more instrumental at UNC than it has at Virginia Tech.

2. Can UNC establish a consistent running game?

This would have been an important question for the Tar Heels regardless of the conditions, but it seems especially important now, given the weather forecast. One of the goals of Bud Foster's defense, as Virginia Tech beat reporter Andy Bitter explained so well here, is to make the opposition one-dimensional.

And so when asked how he planned to stop UNC's up-tempo, pass-first offense, Foster, the Virginia Tech defensive coordinator, said earlier this week that the first priority would be to stop the Tar Heels' rushing offense. Do that, the theory goes, and it becomes easier to defend the pass – because in that scenario the Hokies more often than not would know what's coming. And so establishing a running game, and maintaining offensive balance, will be of special importance today for UNC.

Elijah Hood missed the second half at Florida State last week after sustaining an injury just before halftime. Though Fedora said earlier this week that he expects Hood to play today, I'm more skeptical. I'd expect to see a heavy dose of T.J. Logan, who has run well in his limited opportunities this season, with Khris Francis receiving some work, as well.

If UNC is able to produce a good, consistent running game, it'd be an accomplishment. Virginia Tech ranks 24th nationally in run defense and allowed an average of about 2 yards per carry in victories the past two weeks against Boston College and East Carolina. Those teams aren't as good as the Tar Heels but, still … those are impressive defensive numbers regardless of competition.

3. How the Tar Heels' run defense holds up.

Conversely, UNC's beleaguered run defense, which now ranks a not-great-Bob 117th nationally, is in for another challenge. Hasn't it been that way every week, it seems? Nick Chubb, James Connor, Dalvin Cook … and now a pretty decent Virginia Tech rushing offense, in conditions more conducive to running than passing.

The Hokies use a lot of different ball-carriers in Fuente's offense. Sophomore running back Travon McMillian and Evans, the quarterback, are the two leading rushers and have combined to average about 105 rushing yards per game.

Earlier this week, Fedora compared Evans to Marquise Williams – a big, powerful guy who's tough to bring down. The run-pass option with Evans presents its own unique challenge. Step up to try to stop the run, and you're liable to get burned in the secondary by Ford and Cam Phillips. Stay back and give the pass a lot of attention, and Evans could easily gain five to seven yards at a time in a methodical march down the field.

UNC's linebacker corps, which has been up and down this season, will be tested, especially. The Tar Heels have yet to really face a quarterback this season who is as run-oriented as Evans. How does UNC hold up against him, and the rest of the Virginia Tech rushing offense?

4. The role of special teams.

You just get the feeling that, because of the weather, some weird, wild stuff could happen with special teams today. Common sense says that the conditions would preclude the kind of thing we saw last weekend at Florida State, where Nick Weiler made a 54-yard field goal to win as time expired. But who knows, maybe with the wind at his back today Weiler's range extends to 64 yards.

Special teams are always a variable entering any game. That seems especially true today. For what it's worth, Ryan Switzer, the Tar Heels' punt returner extraordinaire, said earlier this week that he doesn't have much use for the kind of weather he'll be playing in today. He likes sunny, clear skies, as most skill players would.

How about a bunch of rain and wind instead? Does that make it more difficult for Switzer to do his thing as a punt returner? Or would the conditions make it more difficult for Virginia Tech to defend him in the open field.

We'll start to get answers, as I type this, in a little more than five hours or so. See you at Kenan.

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