As soon as Virginia coach Mike London issued the challenge early in the practice week to his offense, Perry Jones didn't need any alternative interpretations of London's edict. It was a basic concept, but one without simple solutions on how to achieve it.
A not-so subtle reminder for Jones heading into what could be one of U.Va.'s most daunting offensive chores of the season: trying to gain yards on the ground and protect its quarterbacks against North Carolina's ravenous defensive front.
"The coaches gave us a challenge this week to just run the ball hard, so I think everybody on the offense — especially on the offensive line and the running backs — have kind of taken that personally," said Jones, who has 34 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown this season, and who ran 11 times for 53 yards last season in U.Va.'s 44-10 loss to UNC — the Cavaliers first home loss to the Tar Heels since 1981.
After giving up just 1 rushing yard last weekend in a 24-22 win against Rutgers, UNC (2-0) leads the Atlantic Coast Conference and ranks third in the nation in rushing defense, giving up 30 yards per game. The single yard UNC surrendered to Rutgers was the least given up by the Tar Heels in a game since 2000, when Wake Forest went for minus-2.
UNC's starting defensive front four, which averages 293 pounds per starting position, represents the focal point of the Tar Heels' defensive prowess. Defensive end Quinton Coples, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound senior who has two of UNC's nine sacks (tied for seventh in nation as a team), and defensive tackle Tydreke Powell, a 6-3, 305-pound senior, are both considered potential first-round NFL draft selections.
In addition to that duo on the line, senior linebacker Zach Brown also has established himself as a pass-rushing threat, leading the team in both tackles with 12 and sacks with 2 1/2 sacks.
London, who will be seeking his first road win in two seasons as U.Va.'s coach, refers to Brown as "as good as advertised." Brown came out of Hargrave Military Academy in 2008 considered by some recruiting analysts to be among the nation's top 20 prep school prospects, but he started just 11 games in his first three seasons at UNC. He still finished second on the team in tackles last season with 72.
U.Va. (2-0), which despite UNC's recent reputation for defensive excellence has still posted 100-plus yard runners in four of its last five meetings against the Tar Heels, will present a sterner test for UNC in the running game than James Madison and Rutgers.
In addition to the 5-8 Jones, U.Va. can come at UNC with 5-8 redshirt freshman Kevin Parks, who leads the Cavaliers with 27 carries for 151 yards and five touchdowns, and change pace with 6-foot-0, 215-pound true freshman Clifton Richardson, a Menchville High graduate who is averaging 8.9 yards per carry.
Parks suffered a lower extremity injury last Saturday in U.Va.'s 34-31 win at Indiana and only carried the ball 11 times for 37 yards and two touchdowns. He's listed as probable for the UNC game.
With so many pass rush threats, UNC will demand more of guys like Jones, Parks and Richardson than just determined running. U.Va. has given up just two sacks this season against Indiana and FCS foe William and Mary.
"Like I told my other running backs, they see that we're smallish backs so they're going to try to send blitzes at us, but so far I think we've been doing a good job (in pass protection)," said Jones, who also leads U.Va. with seven catches for 102 yards. "Our linebackers have been coming hard in practice since training camp. In the game, it's just that much easier."
Like London's primitive assessment of what the running backs must do to succeed against UNC, U.Va. offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim's evaluation of UNC's defense is similarly uncomplicated.
"They're bigger and faster," Wachenheim said. "That's the biggest thing. They've got a couple of technique things we have to watch out for that I'd rather not comment on because I don't want them to read it and know what we're preparing for, but they're very good."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun