Virginia Tech returns from a week off for self-scouting and healing with a pretty clear sense of the challenge ahead.
The Hokies (5-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) are a game behind No. 8 Miami and Virginia in the loss column in the ACC's Coastal Division, and they can't really afford to stumble before playing both of those rivals, and Georgia Tech, if they are to return to the league championship game.
They will get started on that ambitious closing stretch against a North Carolina team that is reeling, having lost four in a row.
"We've got six conference games, especially Coastal, and we're going to just try to win every one of them," Hokies redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson said. "But right now we're just focused on North Carolina, so that's how we're going to take it.
The Tar Heels (1-6, 0-4) have struggled on both sides of the ball. They are averaging just 12 points during their skid and allowing 28.3 per game.
Since starting last season 7-2, they have lost nine of 11 games.
"Well, I don't have a way to explain it," coach Larry Fedora said. "I mean, we're just - we're not making enough plays to come out on top. I think there's been some games where our defense has put us in a position to win the football game and offensively we haven't been able to get it done.
"Special teams wise, I think we've been very solid, we've been good in some areas, but we've just been OK, and that's not who we are."
The No. 14 Hokies, meantime, have been pretty consistent since Justin Fuente took over as coach last year. They are efficient on offense behind Jackson, who has thrown for 13 touchdowns with just four interceptions, and rank seventh nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 13.7 points with a pair of shutouts.
Defensive tackle Tim Settle said the off-week was appreciated, but the Hokies are ready to get back to pursuing their goals.
"We are geeked up to play, excited. I think everybody this past weekend was watching everybody play. I mean, watching people play and not playing is kind of hard," he said. "Our bye week, so I think everybody is amped up to get back on the field and keep this thing going. Keep everything rolling."
Here are some things to watch when North Carolina visits Virginia Tech:
MAKE EM THROW: Freshman Michael Carter is coming off a 157-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 20-14 loss to Virginia , and the Hokies always look to stop the run first. That will be especially true Saturday since the Tar Heels' passing game has struggled. The UNC starter is a week-to-week decision for Fedora, but LSU transfer Brandon Harris got the nod last week and was 7 for 18 for just 46 yards with three interceptions. Chazz Surratt started the previous five games.
DESPERATION: North Carolina has to win out to qualify for a bowl game. After facing the Hokies, they will face No. 8 Miami at home, go on the road to Pittsburgh, face Western Carolina at home and close the season with No. 16 North Carolina State, who is currently leading the Atlantic Division race at 6-1, 4-0 in the ACC.
DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWNS: North Carolina continues to have defensive breakdowns. The Tar Heels surrendered an 81-yard touchdown pass in last week's loss to Virginia, marking the eighth touchdown they've allowed of at least 40 yards - half of those coming by at least 70 yards.
KICKING: Virginia Tech placekicker Joey Slye is the school's career scoring leader and is fourth in the nation with 36 touchbacks on 39 kickoffs. He's also made 11 of 17 field goals, the longest from 50 yards. The Tar Heels' kicking game is less sure with Freeman Jones having made 4 of 8 attempts, all from inside 40 yards.
RECORD BREAKERS: Virginia Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips, if he is sufficiently recovered from a sprained foot, needs four receptions to supplant Isaiah Ford (210) as the Hokies career receptions leader. Coach Justin Fuente needs one victory to pass C.B. Cubbage (15 in 1921-22) for the most in his first two seasons as coach.
AP sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, contributed.
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