5 things to watch: UNC looks to head off Coastal chaos

Depending on what happens between Miami and Florida State on Saturday, defending Coastal champion North Carolina take a lot of the suspense out of this years divisional race with a victory against Virginia Tech

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Sep 17

The ACC’s Coastal Division is famous for its chaos because of the balance among its football membership and the sometimes head-scratching results it has a history of producing. There’s a real possibility that might not be the case this year, though. Depending on what happens between Miami and Florida State on Saturday, defending Coastal champion North Carolina take a lot of the suspense out of this year’s divisional race with a victory against Virginia Tech. At the very worst, wins by the Tar Heels and Hurricanes would essentially narrow things down to a two-team race heading into their showdown next week because of tiebreakers. Of course, if the opposite happens, then let the Coastal chaos begin. … It’s going to be wet and windy in Chapel Hill as Hurricane Matthew skirts the coast of our state, but the plan is for the game to be played as scheduled. So here’s a look at five things to watch when the 17th-ranked Tar Heels (4-1, 2-0 ACC) and No. 25 Hokies (3-1, 1-0) face off on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the first game since 2008 matching two ranked teams at Kenan Stadium.Slippery when wet Because of the aforementioned weather event, ball security will be even more important of a factor than usual. Although there’s no guarantee that the team that wins the turnover battle will win the game, it certainly doesn’t hurt. And the Hokies have had more of a penchant for putting the ball on the ground than the Tar Heels thus far this season. Tech has lost 10 turnovers, including nine fumbles in its first four games, which is why coach Justin Fuente has spent extra time at practice this week working to help his players correct the problem. That includes the use of wet balls to simulate conditions, just in case things get especially slippery. “We practice outside quite a bit and there’s a fair amount of wind in Blacksburg, particularly in the springtime,” Fuente said. “It’s something we don’t have a whole lot of control over, and whatever it is, we’ll do our best to adapt.” In contrast to Fuente, UNC’s Larry Fedora hasn’t taken any special measures to prepare for bad weather. He said he’s been more focused on getting hit team ready to execute its game plan regardless of the conditions. “I think we practice enough in the rain and our guys understand what’s expected,” said Fedora, whose Tar Heels have only committed four turnovers in their five games — all fumbles. “I mean, it’s the wind that you can’t control. That’s the thing that you worry about more than anything. The rain, we try not to let rain be a factor for us.”The Foster factor The Hokies may be under new management now that Fuente has taken over for retired coaching legend Frank Beamer, but their defense still has a familiar look thanks to the return of long-time coordinator Bud Foster. Widely recognized as one of the top defensive minds in college football, Foster is among the very the few to have succeeded in slowing Fedora’s uptempo offense during his tenure at UNC. Foster’s defense held the Tar Heels to just 17 points each in 2013-14 — both double-digit Tech wins. And even though UNC won in overtime last November, its 24 points in regulation were only about half its season average. This year’s Hokies are again among the ACC’s best, allowing an average of just 264 yards and 18.8 points per game. Foster’s penchant for disguising blitzes and coverages, along with his ability to make adjustments on the fly will present the biggest challenge to date to UNC’s own star quarterback Mitch Trubisky. “They do a lot of tricky things over there, but they always seem to be in the right spot to make plays,” Trubisky said. “We just have to ID the defense in coverage, but continue to do the basics on offense, do what we do well and try to keep them off balance.” One thing UNC has done especially well this season is convert third downs. The Tar Heels rank second in the ACC at 51.7 percent. They’ll have to work to continue that success against a Tech team that leads the league in third down defense with a conversion rate of just 20.3 percent.Hood winked? Trubisky’s task will become exponentially less complicated if the Tar Heels are able to balance his passing with even a nominally successful ground attack. UNC’s ability to run the ball early against Florida State last week was a major contributing factor in the 21-0 headstart it was able to gain. Of course, its lack of a running game in the second half played just as big a role in leaving the door open for a Seminoles comeback. The difference in the