The Hokies (4-2, 1-2) can pull even with North Carolina (3-3, 2-1) in the division with a victory against the Tar Heels.
Virginia Tech has won all three meetings with UNC under Justin Fuente, but the fourth-year Hokies coach said the Tar Heels have a different look under Mack Brown. Brown coached North Carolina from 1988-97 and returned for this season after 15 seasons at Texas and then some television work.
“What they hadn’t had the last couple of years was consistent quarterback play,” Fuente said, who says true freshman quarterback Sam Howell has changed that for the Tar Heels. “They’ve gotten that and more from Sam in the first six games. Composure, intelligence. He’s athletic. They’ll run him some. Just enough.”
North Carolina is coming off a bye week. Brown said while some teams struggle after a week off, he expects no such issues.
“There’s been a lot of talk this week after byes that some of the teams in the ACC have not played well and they’ve lost,” he said. “We went back and looked at our history after byes, and we’re 30-7-1 since I’ve been coaching. We were 8-2-1 here, and obviously some of that’s when we didn’t beat anybody with the 8-2-1.”
Like the Hokies, the Tar Heels have won two straight after a sloppy start. North Carolina beat Miami 28-25, lost 24-18 at surprising Wake Forest and then became another notch in Appalachian State’s giant-killer belt with a 34-31 loss at home a week later.
Some other things to look for in Saturday’s game, set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Lane Stadium:
The Hokies’ back-to-back victories have come with Hendon Hooker at quarterback. Hooker is billed as a dual threat but says he never had that moniker until college.
In two starts, he’s 26-of-47 passing for 445 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions and has run 31 times for 119 yards and a TD
North Carolina is thin at defensive back. Trey Morrison, out indefinitely because of injury (upper extremity), had started every game this year and 15 for his career. That follows season-ending injuries to fellow defensive backs Patrice Rene (19 career starts) and Cam’Ron Kelly (started one game this year). The team is also without Myles Wolfolk, who has started four games but is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury.
Those injuries have thrust true freshmen Storm Duck and Obi Egbuna into the two-deep chart along with junior Greg Ross.
Wide receiver Damon Hazleton’s return from injury has brought a new dimension to the Hokies: a deep threat in what had been a mostly short passing game. In two games, Hazleton has six receptions for 122 yards and two touchdowns, both last week against Rhode Island.
Howell is developing quickly for UNC. He’s tied with UCF’s Dillon Gabriel for most touchdown passes nationally by a freshman QB (15) and has had at least two scoring passes in every game.
In the Tar Heels’ win at Georgia Tech on Oct. 5, Howell broke school freshman marks for completions (33), attempts (51) and yards (376) and tied the freshman record with four scoring passes.
“I think I have a really good feel right now for where Sam is and what he’ll do,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “I think he would tell you he probably feels the same way about me. He pretty much knows what I’m going to call.”
There’s been one obvious area of growth for North Carolina in Year 1 of Mack Brown’s second tenure in Chapel Hill: avoiding penalties.
The Tar Heels are 23rd in the Bowl Subdivision ranks with an average of 5.3 penalties per game, a huge jump from 118th and 64th the past two seasons under Larry Fedora.
UNC had 10 penalties for 90 yards in the season-opening win against South Carolin but hasn’t had more than seven or over 61 yards lost to penalties in any games since. That included one penalty for 5 yards against Miami and three penalties for 20 yards in the near upset of then-No. 1 Clemson.