Virginia Tech has won two in a row and can get back into the thick of the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division race on Saturday.
The Hokies (4-2, 1-2 ACC) can pull even with North Carolina (3-3, 2-1 ACC) 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. He 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, but freshman quarterback Sam Howell has changed that. "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, and Brown said while some teams have struggled 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."
The Hokies have won two in a row after a sloppy start, mirroring what the Tar Heels have done. North Carolina beat Miami 28-25, but lost 24-18 at surprising Wake Forest the following week, 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 when North Carolina visits Virginia Tech:
Virginia Tech's 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 he joined the Hokies. In two starts, he's 26 for 47 for 445 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions and has run 31 times for 119 yards and a touchdown.
North Carolina is thin at defensive back. Team spokesman Jeremy Sharpe said this week that Trey Morrison is out indefinitely due to injury (upper extremity). Morrison 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 due to a lower-body injury.
Those injuries have thrust true freshmen Storm Duck and Obi Egbuna into the two-deep depth chart along with junior Greg Ross.
The return of Damon Hazleton from injury has added a new dimension to the Hokies' passing game. In two games, he's caught six passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns, both last week against Rhode Island, and added a deep threat to what had previously been a mostly short passing game.
True freshman quarterback Sam Howell is developing quickly for UNC. Howell is 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. He's coming off a big showing in the win at Georgia Tech on Oct. 5, which included him setting school freshman marks for completions (33), attempts (51) and yards (376) while tying 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," 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 at least one major 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 by averaging 5.3 penalties per game, a huge jump from ranking 118th and 64th the past two seasons under Larry Fedora. UNC had 10 penalties for 90 yards in the season-opening win against South Carolina, but hasn't had more than seven penalties or 61 yards lost to penalties in any games since. That included one penalty for 5 yards in a Week 2 win against Miami and three penalties for 20 yards in the near-upset of then-No. 1 Clemson.
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