Oct 3, 2020; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies running back Khalil Herbert (21) breaks free for a touchdown run against the Duke Blue Devils in the second half at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Virginia Tech Hokies won 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

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No. 19 Va. Tech, No. 8 UNC square up for critical ACC tilt

Virginia Tech’s ability to run the ball has been one of its defining features in 2020. North Carolina has taken pride in limiting foes from moving on the ground.

The forces collide Saturday afternoon when No. 19 Virginia Tech visits No. 8 North Carolina at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Both teams are 2-0 overall and in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

These teams have had trouble getting from the practice field to gameday across the first month of the season, with cases of the coronavirus causing Virginia Tech to pause and scheduling glitches interrupting North Carolina’s season.

Time on the field wasn’t a problem last year when these teams met as they played in the longest game in ACC history. Virginia Tech won 43-41 in six overtimes at Blacksburg, Va.

Virginia Tech features new personnel this season.

Hokies running back Khalil Herbert, in his first ACC road game, racked up a school-record 358 all-purpose yards last week at Duke. Now he returns to the area just miles away for the matchup with North Carolina.

“So, I think our big test against the run is going to be Saturday for the first time,” Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said. “I think it’s obvious what Virginia Tech’s going to do. For two weeks, they’ve rushed for over 300 yards, (and) if you rush for over 300 yards, you’re usually going to win the game.”

Herbert, a transfer from Kansas, collected 212 rushing yards at Duke, giving him a nation-leading 156 yards per game. That has helped the Hokies to a top mark in the country with 7.01 yards per carry.

“I do think we need to make sure that we’re not overusing him, and we have really good guys that can fill in and not have a huge drop-off that I feel really comfortable with,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “But I certainly like having him here and the ability to get the ball to the unblocked hat and make the unblocked hat miss has been really big for us so far.”

North Carolina limited Boston College to 40 yards on the ground in last week’s 26-22 road victory. The Tar Heels are tops nationally against the run.

Virginia Tech topped Duke 38-31 while completing only nine passes. There are questions at quarterback for the Hokies, who’ve used Braxton Burmeister, a transfer from Oregon, as the starter for the first two weeks. Expected starter Hendon Hooker had been limited in preseason because of quarantine, but he’s apparently ready for action.

“Heading into this last week, we felt like it was Braxton,” Fuente said. “We’ll go out this week and practice, and like we do at every single position, we’ll evaluate it and try to make the best decision we can.”

Virginia Tech was missing more than 20 players in each of the past two games. It was most startling on defense at Duke because of a depleted secondary. Walk-on Tyler Matheny, a redshirt sophomore, became the starter at free safety.

“What really scares you is on the defensive side of the ball when your numbers start to get low at a particular position,” Fuente said. “There’s no punting on defense. … Our kids continue to believe in the cause. Control what they can control. At least through two weeks have performed well enough to earn a victory.”

North Carolina has a solid rushing attack as well. Running back Michael Carter gained 121 rushing yards at Boston College.

“He’s got such great vision, took care of the ball,” Brown said.

The Tar Heels, who have only their third 2-0 start across a 10-season span, had a long hiatus between games on Sept. 12 and Oct. 3.

“Happy that we’re in the top 10, (though) understanding that early rankings don’t make any difference, and I told (our players) that,” Brown said. “I said, ‘The good thing for you is people have given you the respect they feel like you should be there. The tough thing is you’ve got to earn it to stay.’ And that’s very, very important going forward.”

The Hokies are 7-1 in Chapel Hill since joining the ACC.

–Field Level Media

Field Level Media
Sport Writer & Editor
FLM has a North American focus while tying into regional and hyper-local resources – providing the ability to distribute compelling content through the writing of professional journalists. As the U.S. sports content provider to dozens of digital and print media publishers through strategic partnerships with the likes of Reuters and Nielsen Sports, FLM covers the nuts and bolts with a breaking news desk and game event coverage.

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