Friedlander: First impressions of every ACC game in Week 9
All wins are important, no matter when they come. They just seem to mean more this time of year.
We’ve reached the point in the season when everyone starts counting their victories.
Players, coaches and fans all know exactly how many their teams have and how many they need between now and the end of the regular season to clinch a division title, to earn bowl eligibility or to help their coach save his job.
Or lose it, depending on his popularity.
Opportunities quickly are running out and the sense of urgency is growing. So let’s not waste any time looking ahead to see who has the most to gain and lose on the ACC’s Week 9 schedule.
Virginia Tech at NC State
When – Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV – ESPN
The Wolfpack has had a week off to figure out how to address its quarterback issues without starter Devin Leary. Thursday’s game at Carter-Finley Stadium will be a test to see what, if any, changes coach Dave Doeren and offensive coordinator Tim Beck have made to better fit the skill set of backup Jack Chambers.
Or perhaps freshman M.J. Morris.
State (5-2, 1-2 ACC) has yet to score a touchdown in the 6 quarters since Leary went down with a season-ending arm injury – mustering only 9 field goals in a close win against Florida State and a loss to Syracuse. It’s going to take more than that to salvage something positive from a once-promising season.
One thing working in the Wolfpack’s favor is its opponent. The Hokies (2-5, 1-3) have lost 4 straight, rank 12th in the ACC in total offense and are averaging only 19 points per game. They’ve managed fewer than 300 yards in 4 of their 7 games under new coach Brent Pry.
Considering the strength of State’s defense, which comes in allowing only 17 points per game, Chambers, Morris or whoever is playing quarterback, won’t have to put up a big number to pull out a victory.
Notre Dame at Syracuse
When – Saturday, noon ET
TV – ABC
The Orange (6-1) proved it is capable of playing on even terms with a brand name opponent Saturday when then-No. 14 Syracuse gave No. 5 Clemson everything it could handle in a close loss at Death Valley. This week, the Orange will return home with an opportunity to show it’s capable of beating 1 of the big boys.
Even though the Fighting Irish (4-3) have struggled at times during their 1st season under coach Marcus Freeman, their name still carries weight around college football. Beating them would continue to validate the job coach Dino Babers and his players have done this year while enhancing their postseason bowl resume.
Syracuse’s strength is a defense that has allowed the fewest points (15.1 per game) and yards (294.7) in the ACC and forced the Tigers into 4 turnovers before running out of gas late in the game. The unit, which is led by linebackers Mikel Jones and Marlowe Wax, could get even stronger with the expected return of cornerback Garrett Williams from a leg injury.
Notre Dame is coming off arguably its best game of the season in a 44-21 victory against UNLV that featured a pair of blocked punts and a 130-yard performance from running back Logan Diggs.
Georgia Tech at Florida State
When – Saturday, noon ET
TV – ACC Network
The momentum the Yellow Jackets gained from their midseason coaching change came to a screeching halt Thursday night with an ugly loss to Virginia that ended a 2-game winning streak under interim coach Brent Key.
Tech’s offense lost all of its sting when quarterback Jeff Sims went out with an injury late in the opening half and was replaced by ineffective sophomore Zach Gibson. The Yellow Jackets (3-4, 2-2) were hardly a juggernaut even when Sims was in the lineup. They managed only 202 yards and a field goal in the game (the touchdown came on an interception return) and rank dead last in the ACC in scoring at just 16.1 ppg.
Their defense, however, could present a challenge for Florida State – which comes off its open date looking to get back on the winning track after suffering consecutive losses to Atlantic Division rivals Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson.
The Seminoles (4-3, 2-3) are among the best in the conference running the ball, with Treshaun Ward (488 yards) and Trey Benson (372) both averaging better than 6 yards per carry. But Tech ranks 4th in the ACC against the run in conference games with linebacker Ayinde Eley 2nd in the league in tackles.
Boston College at UConn
When – Saturday, noon ET
TV – CBS Sports Network
The Eagles (2-5) step out of conference in hopes of salvaging something from what has, to this point, been a lost season. A win absolutely is a must to have any shot of getting the 6 wins necessary for bowl eligibility.
And even then it’s a longshot, considering the state of BC’s injury-riddled offensive line.
If there’s something coach Jeff Hafley’s team has going for it, it’s the dynamic duo of quarterback Phil Jurkovec and speedy receiver Zay Flowers. Jurkovic, however, needs time to be effective. And that hasn’t happened often this season. During Saturday’s loss at Wake Forest, he completed 20 passes for 221 yards. Ten of those completions, good for 135 yards and a touchdown, went to Flowers.
UConn (3-5) has been even more offensively challenged since losing leading rusher Nathan Carter to a shoulder injury during a Week 4 defeat to Michigan. The Huskies are averaging only 18.1 points and 290.0 yards per game. But unlike the Eagles, they’ve shown signs of improvement as the season has progressed. UConn has won 2 of their past 3 but was beaten by Ball State 25-21 in its most recent game prior to last week’s open date.
Miami at Virginia
When – Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV – ESPN3
The Hurricanes (3-4, 1-2) began the season as the favorite to win the Coastal Division. After Saturday’s disastrous performance against Duke, their 4th loss in 5 games, coach Mario Cristobal’s team suddenly finds itself chasing wins just to get into the postseason.
Their chances could hinge on the health of Tyler Van Dyke’s right shoulder. The sophomore quarterback was just starting to regain the form from his successful rookie season when he was injured during Saturday’s loss.
Regardless of who is under center, Miami needs to do a better job of protecting the football. Its 8 turnovers Saturday were the most by an ACC team since 2002 and led directly to 24 of the 45 points its defense allowed.
The Cavaliers (3-4, 1-3) could use all the help they can get when it comes to putting points on the board.
Quarterback Brennan Armstrong has been a round peg trying to fit into the square hole of new coach Tony Elliott’s offense. The Cavaliers rank next-to-last in the ACC at 17.6 points per game a year after Armstrong led the league in passing and total offense. Like Miami, they need 3 wins in their final 5 games to gain bowl eligibility.
Wake Forest at Louisville
When – Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
TV – ACC Network
If you like seeing points put on the scoreboard, history suggests this is the game for you this week. The winning team in this matchup has scored at least 37 points during each of the past 6 meetings, including a 62-59 Cardinals win in Winston-Salem, N.C., during 2019.
The Deacons, at 6-1 (2-1), still entertain slim hopes of a repeat Atlantic Division crown and the Cardinals (4-3, 2-3) have won 2 straight in search of the 6 wins they need for postseason consideration. Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman also will be chasing history as he closes in on the ACC record for career touchdown passes.
But beyond that, there’s plenty more intrigue to go around.
Louisville, you’ll remember, was at the heart of the Wakeyleaks scandal involving a stolen playbook the Cardinals and others used to help prepare for the Deacons. Coach Dave Clawson has never forgotten or forgiven Louisville for the incident.
Conversely, the Cardinals still are smarting from a controversial officials decision to put an extra second back on the clock at the end of the 1st half last season, allowing Wake Forest – which was out of timeouts – to kick a field goal that turned out to be decisive margin in a 37-34 Deacons victory.
Pittsburgh at North Carolina
When – Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
TV – ACC Network
This was shaping up as a battle for the Coastal Division lead until the Panthers (4-3, 1-2) had their 7-game road winning streak snapped Saturday by Louisville. Now it’s a matter of survival for the ACC champions, who will be all but eliminated with a loss to the division-leading Tar Heels.
Even though it didn’t play last week UNC (6-1, 3-0) saw its hold on the Coastal lead tighten with losses by each of its top challengers. The Tar Heels enjoy a 2-game lead over the entire division, with tiebreakers on Duke, Miami and Virginia Tech.
The featured matchup on the Week 9 schedule is a contrast in styles with Drake Maye and the Tar Heels’ high-flying passing attack going head-to-head with Pitt’s Israel Abanikanda and the ACC’s 4th-best ground attack.
As always in games involving UNC, the outcome is likely to rest on the performance of the Tar Heels’ defense. If they get stops – even just the timely kind – there’s a good chance coach Mack Brown’s team will continue its winning ways and take a major step forward on the road to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, N.C.