The Virginia Tech Hokies enter Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoon with a 4-2 record, welcoming in newly-minted rival North Carolina to Blacksburg for the 2019 Homecoming Game. For the first time all season, a sold out crowd will greet the Hokies in what is arguably the most important game of the season.
The Tar Heels have surprised many in year one of Mack Brown's second tenure in Chapel Hill, with upsets of South Carolina and Miami already under the team's belt. At 3-3 on the season, North Carolina has itself in prime position to make a bowl game, which is something that many didn't see as possible at the outset of the campaign. Beating the Hokies in Lane Stadium on Saturday will only further boost the chances of bowl eligibility for the Tar Heels, which would propel Mack Brown into the heat of the race for ACC Coach of the Year.
While Virginia Tech finds itself as a 3-point underdog heading into Saturday's homecoming, this game amounts to a toss-up on paper. Here's how the Hokies can get the job done on Saturday afternoon to change the course of its season as the second half of the schedule gets under way.
1. Stop North Carolina in the Red Zone
For all of the criticism that the Virginia Tech defense has received this season, the unit has actually been quite good in the red zone. The bend-but-don't-break mentality of the Virginia Tech defense has manifested itself more often than many realize.
The Hokies' defense enters Saturday ranked 23rd nationally in red zone defense allowing only 13 touchdowns in 23 opposing red zone opportunities. In total, opposing offenses are scoring some sort of points 73.9% of the time once entering the red zone, which all-in-all, is not that bad.
North Carolina's offense has been very good in general this season, but especially once its entered the red zone. In regards to red zone offense, North Carolina is Virginia Tech's toughest test yet. The Tar Heels are tied for 10th in the country (with Virginia Tech, coincidentally) in red zone scoring, converting points on 95.8% of their drives inside the opponent's 20.
In what is anticipated to be a close game on Saturday afternoon at Lane Stadium, turning red zone scoring chances into touchdowns, not field goals, could end up playing a major factor in the outcome of the match-up. Keep an eye on this one.
2. Apply Pressure on UNC QB Sam Howell
Virginia Tech's defense has actually looked quite good when sending pressure on opposing quarterbacks (what's up, Miami?). The Hokies forced five turnovers against the Hurricanes two weeks ago, as the pass rush got home to freshman quarterback Jarren Williams, and later, sophomore quarterback N'Kosi Perry.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has a long track record of giving young quarterbacks issues in their first time facing his defenses, but North Carolina freshman quarterback Sam Howell presents a different challenge on Saturday.
The former blue-chip quarterback prospect hasn't had much trouble adjusting to the college game, completing over 63% of his passes this season with 15 touchdowns to only three interceptions. The Virginia Tech defense, when it's looked its worst in zone coverage, has sat back on its heels, only rushing three-to-four on passing downs against opposing offenses.
This will need to change on Saturday, as the Tar Heels have too many athletes for Tech to play it conservatively with the defensive play-calling. Applying pressure and playing an aggressive style of defense at home will likely play into the Hokies' favor on Saturday, as Tech should swing for the fences against UNC's efficient passing attack.
3. Continue to Limit Turnovers Offensively
This could be listed as a key in any game that the Hokies play, but Virginia Tech's offense has gained consistency over the last two weeks thanks in large part to taking care of the football. Virginia Tech is +5 in the turnover margin over the last two games, and quarterback Hendon Hooker has much to do with the success.
Since being inserted into the game against Duke and fumbling a crucial exchange with running back Keshawn King, Hooker has been nearly flawless with the football, especially since taking over as the starting quarterback in the game against Miami. Hooker has brought poise to the position, making the right reads through the air in the passing game, while holding onto the football and making smart plays in the running game.
The key to Saturday will simply be to not shoot yourself in the foot on offense. North Carolina is a mediocre 91st nationally in turnovers gained in 2019, as the Tar Heels defense has only forced seven turnovers all season. If Virginia Tech can sustain drives by limiting turnovers and staying ahead of the chains, the chances of winning this toss-up game on paper will increase dramatically.
However, if the Hokies revert to their old ways offensively, turning it over seemingly at will such as in the season opener against Boston College, it will be a long afternoon in Lane Stadium.