ACC: Virginia Cavaliers

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had the right idea when he described the final five minutes against Virginia as wild and hectic.

Other adjectives that work: Improbable. Crazy. Insane. Head-scratching ...

You get the idea.

What went down Saturday was a microcosm of the way both North Carolina and Virginia have played recently: The Tar Heels are the team that won't go away; the Hoos are the team that cannot get out of their own way.

So it came to be that North Carolina came back to beat Virginia 28-27 to stay alive in the Coastal Division race. The game turned on four plays in the final 5:09, plays that are probably going to keep coach Mike London up tonight.

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Play No. 1: Virginia had a 26-21 lead and began marching down the field, all the way down to the North Carolina 32. On second down, Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert went back for a screen pass to Kevin Parks. Defensive tackle Nazair Jones read the play and leaped off the ground, snagging the interception. North Carolina took over at the Virginia 38 with a chance to win.

"I should have just done something different with the ball, thrown it in the dirt or something," Lambert said. "I thought that would have been a statement drive for us and a play here or there can always change that. We've got -- especially me -- to do a better job of executing."

Fedora said: "I was looking somewhere else at the time until everybody started yelling, and I saw him running and I saw the screen setting up and I mean he's 6-foot-5 and he's 290 pounds and he's mobile. That was big. Screens is a big part of what they've done on the past and our guys worked hard on it so it was good to see them execute that from their work in practice."

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Play No. 2: North Carolina got down to the Virginia 11 after Marquise Williams threw a 27-yard pass to Ryan Switzer. On second down, Eli Harold tackled Williams to the turf. Williams' helmet popped off, sending backup Mitch Tribusky into the game.

Fedora considered calling a timeout, but decided to roll with it. Trubisky calmly delivered a 16-yard touchdown pass to a wide open T.J. Thorpe, pulling the Tar Heels ahead 28-27.

"I'm happy with what we've been doing with Mitch," Fedora said. I know a lot of people think we're idiots but it paid off for him in that situation. He was calm, he knew what he was running and he executed the play. He never blinked."

Trubisky said: "I saw his helmet come off and just knew I had to be ready. It was such short notice that I didn't have time to think about it."

Virginia safety Anthony Harris said, "It's tough to give up a play like that right in the middle of the end zone and give them the lead on that play."

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Play No. 3: Fedora had a choice to make. With 4:05 remaining, he could kick to Virginia and hope his much-maligned defense would come through. Or ...

Assistant coach Ron West asked Fedora whether he wanted to go for an onside kick.

"Throughout the game, they were saying, 'Look, it's there, and then they said it again, and I said you know what? It's the right time to do it," Fedora said.

Kicker Nick Weiler, who missed two field goals in the game, lined up.

"We executed it in practice every time, so the coaches were confident in it," he said. "We had the look and we knew we had to make a game-changing play on special teams."

The signal went up, Virginia was unprepared, and Mack Hollins recovered the ball.

"Nick kicked a real good ball," Hollins said. "They were backing up while we were keeping it onside so by the time they turned around, they had no chance."

Virginia safety Quin Blanding said, "For them to cover it, it blew my mind."

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Play No. 4: Williams returned to the field and made some plays by running with the ball -- getting North Carolina down to the Virginia 21 with 1:17 to play. The Tar Heels called a timeout, and elected to set up for a field goal.

Coming off the sideline, Virginia made a critical error. There was confusion among the linemen, and the Hoos ended up with 12 men on the field. The refs saw it and called the penalty.

Game. Over.

"There was an extra guy on the field who should not have been there," London said. "When we make those switches, one guy comes in and one guy comes out. It was not caught or noticed. That is coaching, that is us on the sideline watching what's going on."

Now both teams are 4-4, and 2-2 in Coastal play. This one could be a launching point for the Tar Heels to make a run at a division title; it could also spell doom for the Hoos.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
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Miami silenced Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium fairly early Thursday night. Will we find more drama in the rest of the Week 9 slate?

Noon

North Carolina at Virginia, ESPN3, #UNCvsUVA: Marquise Williams is coming off consecutive career outings. Virginia is looking to get back on the winning track after losing to reigning Coastal division champion Duke last week. Can its defense make another big stand and make life difficult for the red-hot UNC offense? Or have the Heels found their second-half groove after a poor start, much like they did last year?

3:30 p.m.

Boston College at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #BCvsWAKE: John Wolford is good to go for Wake after leaving last week's 30-7 home loss to Syracuse. He'll face a BC team that gave Clemson all it could handle last week before falling just short. Still, the 4-3 Eagles are on the brink of back-to-back bowl games under Steve Addazio in his first two years, and their rushing game (No. 9 nationally) should be a handful for a Demon Deacons defense that has been stout this season.

Georgia Tech at Pitt, ESPNU, #GTvsPITT: Is it panic time in Atlanta? A 5-0 start has been met with consecutive losses, including a 48-43 defeat last week at North Carolina in which the defense simply could not make a stop late. Pitt hopes it turned the corner last Thursday in its win over Virginia Tech, but it needs more diversity on the offensive side of the ball, which has been too reliant on James Conner and Tyler Boyd. Its defense does not have Aaron Donald and his dominant performance last year against the Yellow Jackets, but it has been playing well so far this season, ranking 14th nationally in scoring average (18.6).

7 p.m.

Syracuse at No. 21 Clemson, ESPNU, #CUSEvsCLEM: Scott Shafer and Dabo Swinney have made up after last year's Tigers rout in the Carrier Dome. Both teams are in their second straight week with their current signal-caller, as freshman AJ Long led the Orange past Wake Forest in their first career start and Cole Stoudt returned as Clemson's starter in its win at BC. Will the Orange's offensive line give Long a chance against the Tigers' stout front? This game ends a brutal stretch for the Orange, who faced Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State before Wake last week.

ACC Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
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Fortuna: UNC's confidence is extremely high, coming off a close loss at Notre Dame and a last-second shootout win over Georgia Tech. Marquise Williams is playing the best ball of his life, hoping to turn the Heels' season around in the second half like he did a year ago. Virginia's defense will be challenged by the UNC tempo, and if that defense can't create scoring opportunities for itself, the Cavaliers' offense may not have the weapons to keep up if this contest turns into a shootout. Williams and the offense bail the Heels' defense out once again, signaling a recovery not unlike last year's for UNC.
North Carolina 42, Virginia 31

Hale: Yes, North Carolina got up off the mat last week to eek out a last-minute win over one of the most generous defenses in the ACC, but let's not assume all the Tar Heels' woes are behind them. They still allowed Georgia Tech to rack up 611 yards of offense, and they won't find nearly as many yards of their own against Virginia's stout D. The Hoos' pass rush should play havoc against UNC's work-in-progress O-line (remember what Virginia did to UCLA?). Virginia's improving passing attack threw for 325 yards last week against a good Duke secondary. What do you think the Hoos might do against those struggling UNC defensive backs? Kevin Parks has been waiting for a breakthrough performance, and North Carolina has nearly 600 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in its past two games. Add a home-field advantage for the Hoos, and last week's momentum for UNC won't last long. Virginia 30, North Carolina 24


Adelson: The Jackets match up much better against Pittsburgh than they did against North Carolina a week ago. The Tar Heels did a majority of their damage offensively through the air, as Williams threw for 390 yards on the Jackets' D. Pitt does not have the same type of passing-game threat, and there will be room to run on the Pitt defense. Though the Panthers shut down Virginia Tech's ground game a week ago, the Hokies are the worst rushing team this group has faced. As long as Georgia Tech holds on to the football, the Jackets should be able to gain yards on the ground and hold on to the ball long enough to win. Georgia Tech 24, Pitt 21

Shanker: At least on paper, the Panthers look as if they could be Georgia Tech and the option offense's kryptonite. The Panthers get off the field on third downs (No. 7 nationally), stop the run (18) and limit the number of long rushes by an opponent. Pittsburgh is a ball-control offense, too, relying on James Conner to move the chains and wear out defenses. The Yellow Jackets are 95th in run defense, too. Pittsburgh has an average time of possession of 33:09, which should keep its defense fresh against Georgia Tech.
Pitt 28, Georgia Tech 27

Unanimous picks

Miami at Virginia Tech: Duke Johnson is a beast, and the Hokies will be without Luther Maddy and Chase Williams. Brad Kaaya has been a magician with the deep ball, and Virginia Tech has allowed 24 pass plays of 20-plus yards. The Hokies are used to Thursday night magic, but this offense might need more than that to get going. Miami 27, Virginia Tech 17

Syracuse at Clemson: Clemson's offense has been stuck in neutral since Deshaun Watson went down with a hand injury, but its defense has more than made up for it. Now, Syracuse sends true freshman AJ Long to deal with that dominant pass rush, and it could get ugly. Clemson 20, Syracuse 7

Boston College at Wake Forest: The Deacons have scored just one offensive touchdown and averaged just 2.2 yards per play in ACC games so far, with more than half their drives failing to garner a first down. Wake won't be able to keep Tyler Murphy and the BC offense off the field, and that's going to lead to a long day for the Deacons' defense. Boston College 31, Wake Forest 10

Current standings
Shanker: 48-10
Adelson: 46-12
Fortuna: 45-13
Hale: 44-14

ACC Show: Week 9 (2 ET)

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Join ESPN.com ACC reporters Andrea Adelson, Matt Fortuna and Jared Shanker as they discuss the Week 9 slate and answer your questions live on screen.
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley ranks 19th nationally in total offense. But against Virginia in the season opener, a game in which Hundley was supposed to formally announce his Heisman candidacy, the Cavaliers made him look like the 119th-ranked quarterback.

The Cavaliers will need another dynamite effort on defense Saturday as their bowl hopes hang in the balance. North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, who ranks 17th in total offense at 318 yards per game, is coming to Charlottesville and is playing the best football of his career.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina's Marquise Williams
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesNorth Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams has rushed for 299 yards in his past three games and passed for more than 300 yards in his past two.
"He is a guy that is definitely, if you want to characterize a dual-threat guy, he can run the ball, he can escape from his pass drops, he can throw the ball," Virginia coach Mike London said. "… He's improved the last couple games for sure."

The Virginia defense has been among the best in the country, though, and Williams will have his hands full just as the Virginia defense will have its issues with Williams. The Cavaliers are ninth in total defense when playing FBS competition, and few teams attack the quarterback better than Virginia. The Cavs have 22 sacks, which ranks 12th in the nation.

Blitzing and wildly pursuing the passer could leave the Virginia defense susceptible to the 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior Williams' athleticism. Over his last three games, Williams, who has solidified his position atop the depth chart, has rushed for 299 yards. If Virginia gets out of its rushing lanes and does not try to collapse the pocket with discipline, Williams could take off.

"The biggest thing is break down before you tackle ... and not going in to take someone's head off," said linebacker Max Valles, whose four sacks ranks 10th in the ACC.

When Valles does blitz, he knows Williams won't afford him much time to freelance. Valles expects the Tar Heels to get the ball out of Williams' hands quickly on passing plays, so the Virginia defense will need to get into their pass rush right at the snap. As a passer, Williams has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the last two games, which means the Cavs will need to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, even if it doesn't equate to sacks.

"We have to get in our moves much quicker and not waste any time," he said.

North Carolina looks like it could be on the same delayed linear trajectory it was a year ago -- abysmal first half of the season with marked improvements in the second half. The Heels nearly upset Notre Dame two weekends ago, and last Saturday they dealt Georgia Tech a painful blow in the Coastal Division.

As bad as North Carolina has been, it is only one game behind in the loss column in the division, and it has remaining games against all three Coastal teams with just one conference loss.

One of those teams is Virginia, although the Cavaliers have a brutal schedule -- not just in the second half of the season but overall. It is an especially tough stretch to close out the season, though, with road games at Georgia Tech, Florida Ste and Virginia Tech plus a home game against Miami.

Still two games from bowl eligibility, the Cavaliers understand every game is crucial. A win against UNC begins with stopping Williams.

"Every game from here on out is a must win," Valles said, "so we can get to where we want to be, which is to be on top of the Coastal."

ACC morning links

October, 22, 2014
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It's rarely a good sign when a defensive coordinator is imploring a fanbase to respect the job his defense has done, but that's what Miami assistant Mark D'Onofrio was doing this week.

"Give the guys some credit," D'Onofrio said in this article from Matt Porter of The Palm Beach (Florida) Post.

The truth is the Miami defense has played well this season. The problem is the defense is not stepping up in the games the Miami program needs it to.

Against Nebraska, the Hurricanes were torched on the ground and allowed the Cornhuskers to convert 70 percent of their third-down attempts. In the Hurricanes' three losses, all on the road, they are allowing opponents to convert nearly 60 percent of their third-down attempts. With the Miami offense improving each week, the defense needs to do a much better job of giving quarterback Brad Kaaya the ball.

There have also been two games already in which Miami allowed more than 300 rushing yards, and if the Hurricanes were able to get a few stops against Georgia Tech, there was a good chance they could have won the game.

But D'Onofrio is right in that the defense is seemingly taking steps in the right direction. The unit played well in the first half against Cincinnati, and it put the clamps on Duke at the end of September.

The problem is the Georgia Tech loss was sandwiched between those games, and that inconsistency is causing Canes fans to pull their hair out.

With a date against Virginia Tech on Thursday, the odds are the defense will limit the Hokies, who rank 83rd nationally in total offense. But what will happen the next two games against North Carolina and Florida State?
  • Virginia Tech's defense needs to be prepared on Thursday night, too.
  • Once North Carolina began racking up the points, the Georgia Tech defense began playing without discipline by trying to make the big play instead executing the called play.
  • For the Tar Heels to truly turn this season around, the defense will need to begin making strides.
  • Clemson is right where most people expected them to be at 5-2, but Dabo Swinney still sees greatness for this team.
  • Syracuse still expects its indoor facility to be ready in December.
  • Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas, who was suspended the first six games, saw quite a bit of action in his first game back.
  • Miles Gooch was a productive high school quarterback, but like so many star athletes at the position, a change was needed in college. Now Gooch is Virginia's leading receiver.
  • Louisville will wear alternate uniforms for next week's game against Florida State. Do you like them? More importantly: does it matter? I don't buy the theory that alternate uniforms -- black, gray, turquoise -- have any impact on a game.
  • If you like Pittsburgh football and like math, here's a breakdown of James Conner's bounce back from a drop off. While Conner was better against Virginia Tech, he still wasn't the dominating runner Pitt fans saw the first few weeks.
Notre Dame and the ACC announced their playing dates Tuesday through 2025, which rounds out the average of five league opponents a year for the Irish for 12 years.

"The football partnership between the ACC and Notre Dame is a terrific enhancement for all parties," ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a release. "Notre Dame not only adds to our league's already highly ambitious schedules, it also provides the opportunity for almost all of our student-athletes to play against Notre Dame during their careers. When you add in the excitement that it brings to our fans, there's no question that this partnership is significant."

Dates were finalized through 2019, with opponents and sites set up for the six years after that. The full 2015 and 2016 schedules had already been announced last December, when this season's schedule -- the first of the ACC football agreement for Notre Dame -- was released.

"Nine additional seasons of games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents again adds both variety and quality to future University of Notre Dame football schedules," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a release. "Over those nine years, four ACC programs that have never played in Notre Dame Stadium (Louisville, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech) will come to South Bend, and two others that have only played at Notre Dame one time (Wake Forest and Clemson) also will travel to our campus.

"On the other side of the coin, during that period we will take our team to four ACC campuses at which Notre Dame never has played football (Louisville, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech), plus three others (Clemson, Duke and Wake Forest) where our team has played only once."

Some notes on the Irish's future schedules:
  • Notre Dame will get its shot at redemption against Florida State in four years, when the Seminoles visit South Bend on Nov. 10, 2018 -- three days shy of the 25th anniversary of the 1993 "Game of the Century" between these two. The Irish will return to Tallahassee on Sept. 6, 2021, Labor Day, before the Noles go back to Notre Dame Stadium sometime in 2024.
  • That holiday date at FSU is actually the second of two Labor Day road games for the Irish, who travel to Louisville on Sept. 2 (Labor Day) in 2019. As of now, it does not look like Notre Dame will play any Thursday night games.
  • That 2019 opener at Louisville is the first of a strenuous slate of road games for the Irish in 2019: They also go to Georgia (Sept. 21), Georgia Tech (Oct. 19) and Duke (Nov. 9). They are also expected to travel to Stanford that year, since it is an odd-number year, though no official date has been set. You can bet the Irish staff will point out this year to Peach State recruits, who will get a pair of trips back to their home state in a span of a month.
  • Notre Dame gets six ACC games in 2019 and 2023, while playing just four in 2022 and 2024. The Irish, of course, have just four ACC games this year, but will play six next season.
  • Notre Dame will play seven of the ACC's 14 teams in consecutive years: Miami in 2016 and 2017 and 2024 and 2025; NC State in 2016 and 2017; Wake Forest in 2017 and 2018; Virginia Tech in 2018 and 2019; Duke in 2019 and 2020; UNC in 2021 and 2022; Clemson in 2022 and 2023.
  • There remains no clarity on Notre Dame's Shamrock Series game -- in which it moves a home game off-site to a metropolitan area -- beyond 2016, when it faces Army in San Antonio. Next year's game against BC is at Fenway Park.
  • Not pictured in the graphic (and not-ACC related): As of this past summer, Notre Dame and Michigan State had a verbal agreement for two games in the 2020s, though they have said they may look at a single neutral-site contest.

ACC Upset Watch: Week 9

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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No favorite is ever safe in the Coastal Division. ...

Thursday night

Miami (4-3, 1-2) at Virginia Tech (4-3, 1-2), 8 p.m., ESPN. Line: Miami by 2.5. A little surprised Miami is favored in this game, considering the history. Virginia Tech has won four of its last five meetings with the Canes, and is 11-4 in Thursday night home games. Plus, Miami is 0-3 on the road this season. But on the flip side, the Hokies have not inspired much confidence since their upset win over Ohio State in Week 2. After that victory, Virginia Tech is just 2-3, including a loss at Pittsburgh last Thursday night. The Hokies have an ineffective run game and a quarterback that makes too many mistakes (sound familiar) plus a defense that is missing several injured players. Maybe all that works in Miami's favor. Or maybe Virginia Tech bears down at home, jump starts its run game with Marshawn Williams back in the lineup and uses an aggressive, physical defense to flummox freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya.

Saturday

North Carolina (3-4, 1-2) at Virginia (4-3, 2-1), noon, ESPN3. Line: Virginia by 7. We saw Virginia in a nutshell last week in a loss to Duke. If its defense cannot create pressure or turnovers, the offense cannot win games on its own. So how the defense handles suddenly unstoppable Marquise Williams is going to be the biggest key in this game. Williams has 901 yards of offense and nine total touchdowns in the last two games and now, the Tar Heels have a bit of confidence going for them. They have won four straight in the series. And oh by the way, Williams had a rushing, passing and receiving touchdown in a 45-14 win in this game a season ago. That victory got UNC to four wins. A win here could get UNC to four wins.

Georgia Tech (5-2, 2-2) at Pitt (4-3, 2-1), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. Line: Pitt by 3.5. Georgia Tech has dropped two straight, while Pitt had a big win over Virginia Tech -- does that mean the script has been flipped and the Panthers are now one of the favorites in the Coastal? Nobody can be declared a favorite in the most unpredictable division in America. Georgia Tech handled Pitt well in a 21-10 victory a year ago, and brings a far more effective run game to Pittsburgh than Virginia Tech did. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels did far more damage through the air in a win over the Jackets last week. Pitt has no real passing game outside Chad Voytik to Tyler Boyd, ranking No. 13 in the ACC in pass offense. So the matchups here could work in Georgia Tech's favor.

ACC morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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It appears as if Virginia Tech will lose its second defensive starter to a medical redshirt this season.

Starting defensive tackle Luther Maddy said Monday night on Twitter that he needs a second surgery on his knee and will sit out the rest of the season.
Maddy initially tore the meniscus in his right knee against East Carolina in Week 3, but played 48 snaps with the injury against Georgia Tech. He underwent surgery last month, and the timetable for his return was listed as two-to-four weeks. Though he was listed as probable to play against Pitt, Maddy did not and was not scheduled to play against Miami on Thursday night.

His loss is a big one for the Hokies, who have had to make do without him for the last three games. Nigel Williams replaced him in the lineup, but it's tough to make up for Maddy's experience and skill-set. The four-year starter was a preseason All-ACC team selection after he had 6.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries a season ago. In four games this season, Maddy had seven hurries.

Virginia Tech also plans on redshirting Brandon Facyson, who started the season at cornerback opposite Kendall Fuller. Facyson has been slow to heal from a stress fracture to his shin and has not played since Week 3.

In one other Virginia Tech injury note, running back Marshawn Williams is expected to play against the Hurricanes after missing last week with a sprained ankle.

Over at Georgia Tech, the Jackets got some tough injury news of their own when coach Paul Johnson said that starting B-back Zach Laskey probably won't play at Pitt on Saturday. Laskey hurt his shoulder late against North Carolina last week and was in a sling Monday. Laskey has been terrific this season, with a team-high 120 carries for 595 yards and five touchdowns.

He gained 70 or more yards in each game this season.

Now let's see what else is making headlines in the ACC:

By the numbers: Week 8 recap

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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Digging into some numbers from Week 8 in the ACC ...

Winston is the comeback kid

Amid all the off-field chaos, it's easy to forget how good Jameis Winston is on the field, and he's been particularly impressive when his team needs him most. Winston is awfully good at rallying his team. In the second-half comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday, Winston was a sterling 15-of-16 for 181 yards, leading two touchdown drives.

This is nothing new. While Winston hasn't been tested often, his numbers when playing from behind are off the charts. Since the start of last season, Winston has completed 81-of-109 passes (74 percent) for 1,104 yards (13.6 yards-per-attempt) with 12 touchdowns and one interception when FSU is trailing. That's absurd.

Winston also excelled against the blitz Saturday. In 2013, he completed 69 percent of his throws, averaged 11.8 yards-per-attempt and tossed 21 TDs to just three picks vs. the blitz, but to start this season, his YPA dropped to 8.1 and he had just three TDs on 54 attempts. Against the Irish, however, Winston was 9-of-11 for 113 yards with two TDs and no picks when facing the blitz.

Noles' ground game struggling

On Saturday, FSU mustered just 50 yards on 26 rushing attempts -- a dismal 1.92 YPC. Last season, FSU averaged 5.6 yards per rush, but it has yet to hit that mark in any game against an FBS foe this season.

It's not all on the tailbacks, however. The biggest difference appears to be the O-line.

.

FSU's runners are averaging roughly the exact same number of yards after first contact as they did in the previous two seasons, but they're getting more than two yards-per-carry less before contact than they did in 2012.

Boyd and nothing else

Pitt toppled Virginia Tech on Thursday despite QB Chad Voytik completing just 10 passes (on 17 attempts). What's perhaps even more noteworthy about Pitt's passing game, however, is that the only wide receiver to catch a pass was Tyler Boyd, who had six receptions on nine targets.

That's hardly a surprise. For the season, Boyd has 34 catches against FBS teams. The rest of Pitt's receiving corps has 22.

Overall, Boyd has accounted for 41.4 percent of Pitt's targets and 49.7 percent of its receiving yards vs. FBS foes -- both the highest rates in the nation.

Clemson stuffs the run

Remember in the opener when Todd Gurley ran all over Clemson's defense? Georgia racked up 328 rushing yards and five TDs on 41 carries. It was ugly.

Since then, however, the Tigers have surrendered just 395 more yards in six games. Clemson is allowing just 2.0 yards-per-carry since the opener, the best rate in the nation. Against Boston College on Saturday, it held the Eagles to nearly 200 yards below their season rushing average, and the Tigers racked up 14 tackles for loss. It was the fourth time in the last six games Clemson has had double-digit TFLs, and since that opening game against UGA, no defense in the country has created a higher percentage of negative rushing plays than Clemson's (36.5 percent).

Marquise the magician

For the second straight week, North Carolina QB Marquise Williams was terrific. Williams enjoyed his third 300-yard game of the season (Winston is the only other ACC QB with as many), chucking four TD passes and adding a fifth score -- along with 70 rushing yards -- on the ground in a win against Georgia Tech.

It's the second straight game Williams had 300 passing yards, 70 rushing yards and at least three total touchdowns. In the past decade, the only other Power 5 conference QB to do that in back-to-back games was Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.

Heels, Jackets struggle on D

Entering Saturday's game, the only Power 5 conference team allowing more yards-per-play than Georgia Tech (6.3) and North Carolina (6.2) was South Carolina (6.35), so it was no surprise that the two defenses coughed up 1,190 yards and 91 points when they faced off.

For Georgia Tech, it's the continuation of a downward trend. In Ted Roof's first eight games against FBS teams as Tech's defensive coordinator, the Yellow Jackets allowed 5.5 yards-per-play and held five opponents below 101 yards rushing. In his last nine, opponents have rushed for an average of 173 yards per game and are averaging 6.5 yards-per-play overall, good for 115th in the nation in that span.

But things are even worse for the Tar Heels. In the last decade, just five Power 5 conference teams have allowed more yards in their first seven games than UNC (3,659) and only four have allowed more touchdowns (40).

Quick hitters
  • Entering the game, Virginia QBs were completing 63 percent of their throws to wide receivers this season, but against Duke, the Hoos completed just 45 percent. Matt Johns targeted wideouts on 70.2 percent of his throws in the game — the second-highest percentage of throws to WRs for Virginia quarterbacks this season. Cavaliers wideouts haven't caught a touchdown pass in their past three games after hauling in six in the first four.
  • Johns did hit running back Khalek Shepherd for a passing touchdown. It was just the third one Duke has allowed this season. Only San Jose State and Ole Miss have allowed a lower rate of touchdown throws in the nation.
  • Ryan Switzer in 13 games last season: 32 catches, 341 yards, three TDs. Switzer in seven games this season: 34 catches, 429 yards, three TDs.
  • The two highest completion percentages for Power 5 wideouts (min. 30 targets) reside in the ACC, and both are true freshmen: Clemson's Artavis Scott (38 catches on 46 targets) and NC State's Bo Hines (28 catches on 35 targets).
  • UNC's defense has struggled, but it has also been opportunistic. The Heels have 80 points off turnovers this year, the third-best total in the country. On the flip side, the Heels have allowed 77 points off turnovers, the second-worst total in the country.
There is a simple bit of clarity confronting the ACC and Florida State eight weeks into the season: Perfection seems the only way to get the Seminoles into the College Football Playoff.

No other Power 5 program will be held to such a standard. But no other Power 5 conference has its reputation in a sinkhole the way the ACC does. That is why it was so important for Florida State to beat Notre Dame on Saturday. As long as the Noles keep winning, they are assured of a spot in the top four. But lose? Florida State may as well be playing in Conference USA. That is how little respect the ACC has nationally right now.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston was fired up after Saturday's victory over Notre Dame, but the Noles will have to keep winning if they hope to make the playoff.
Just look at the most recent AP and coaches Top 25 polls. While the College Football Playoff selection committee will put together its own rankings next week, it is instructive to look at how the media and coaches perceive the ACC -- outside Florida State.

Because the league as a whole is what will drag Florida State down if the Noles lose a game.

Besides Florida State, the ACC has only one ranked team. In the AP poll, Clemson (5-2) is No. 21 behind two other two-loss teams: Oklahoma and USC. Reigning Coastal champion Duke (6-1) cannot even crack the Top 25 after back-to-back victories over ACC teams with winning records. East Carolina (5-1), with wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, is ranked No. 18.

Duke and Minnesota are the only 6-1 teams from Power 5 conferences that are unranked. That fact not only speaks to their status as “non-football powers,” but to the idea that their respective leagues are weak. The Big Ten has been panned for its mediocrity this season. But the ACC ranks lower than the Big Ten in the ESPN.com conference power rankings, sitting last among the Power 5 conferences.

Everything we heard during media days about the ACC being stronger? Everything we heard about the ACC gaining more respect since it boasted the national champion? False propaganda. As it turns out, an ACC world with the reigning national champion does not look much different.

Florida State is still alone holding the flag, while Clemson is a distant second. It is hard for a program to fight off the weak-conference stigma when it does not beat its most difficult opponents (Clemson) or play anybody tough out of conference (Duke).

Clemson lost to two Top 10 teams this season -- to Georgia and Florida State. Both teams were ranked higher than the Tigers at the time they played. Yet Oklahoma lost to two teams ranked lower (TCU and Kansas State) and is still four spots higher than Clemson in the AP poll.

These are the ingrained notions that follow programs around, no matter what they do. Clemson “chokes” and the ACC is constantly disrespected. Put them both together and you get critics completely dismissing Florida State’s win over the Tigers earlier this season.

Falling flat nationally hurts, too. While ACC teams like Virginia Tech, Boston College and Florida State have big wins over then-Top 10 opponents, the league also has some head-scratching losses to Colorado State, Akron and ULM. Plus, there were blown opportunities against UCLA, Nebraska, Iowa and Maryland.

So essentially, Florida State gets no lifelines from its conference foes. Even a beefed-up nonconference schedule has not engendered much goodwill from the rest of the country.

Funny to think that before the season started, many believed a one-loss Florida State team would survive and make it into the College Football Playoff based on a strength of schedule that looked much better than it did last season.

As it stands today, Florida State is on pace to play fewer ranked teams than it played in 2013. Right now, the Noles have two ranked teams behind them and none remaining. Last season, they played four Top 25 teams at the time of the matchup (two of them ended the season unranked).

Four of Florida State's remaining five games are against teams with winning records. But nobody wants to hear that going to Louisville and Miami won’t be easy; that Virginia is vastly improved; that Boston College gave the Noles fits last season. Florida State will be expected to win them all.

That’s really the only way the Noles can guarantee themselves a spot in the playoff.

Once again, Florida State is on its own.

ACC bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
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The win over Notre Dame certainly wasn’t the final piece to Florida State’s playoff puzzle, but it was clearly the biggest hurdle the Seminoles had remaining on the schedule. That has secured FSU’s spot in our postseason projections, but for now, we’re still predicting the Irish will get a bowl game shot at another ACC power.

College Football Playoff: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson versus Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Duke
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville
Belk Bowl: Virginia
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Georgia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Virginia Tech
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: NC State

* Note: If Notre Dame is not invited to the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl game, it will assume one of the ACC’s bowl spots.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
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ACC mailbag

October, 17, 2014
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Since the ACC Black Cat has nearly jinxed all of you, I am doing my best to reverse the fortunes of the ACC by (temporarily) seizing control of the mailbag.

Anonymous Eagle from California writes: Boston College total rushing yards allowed: 599. Clemson total rushing yards allowed: 603. Seems pretty even to me. And with Clemson’s main QB out with an injury, Clemson might have to depend more on the run. That Louisville game was messy. BC has issues -- they dominated USC then completely failed to contain Colorado State -- but I think this game will be a lot closer than everyone thinks.

Shanker: OK, so you’re really not asking a question Anonymous Eagle, but your analysis that 599 and 603 are “pretty even” is an accurate assessment. I agree the game will be close, but I’m not sure anyone sees this as a blowout with the Tigers reeling from the loss of star freshman Deshaun Watson. This is obviously an entirely different team with Cole Stoudt at quarterback, and I’m not sure anyone would be shocked if Boston College, a five-point home underdog, pulled off the upset. The Clemson rushing attack has been ineffective much of the season, and now the Eagles will be able to load the box, although they still need to do so at their own peril as the Tigers are loaded at receiver. However, Boston College is one dimensional on offense, too, which means Clemson can also focus on just stopping Tyler Murphy as a runner and daring him to throw. You can talk about rushing numbers all you want, but this game probably comes down to which quarterback can make enough plays through the air. And enough plays might mean just one or two.




Jeff Miller from Perry, Georgia, writes: What are Georgia Tech’s chances of winning the Coastal?

Shanker: I’d say very good, it is probably in the second-best position to win the division. The loss to Duke is a real buzz kill, though. With wins against Virginia Tech and Miami the previous two weeks, the Yellow Jackets were putting some distance between them and some of the other Coastal contenders. Now Duke owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, and the Blue Devils' schedule is soft. I’ll spell it: s-o-f-capital T ... sofT. If they clear these next two games against Virginia at home and at Pittsburgh, it’s hard to find another loss on their schedule. Pitt’s schedule sets up nicely, too, but the Panthers are not convincing anyone they are legitimate contenders yet. Miami has to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday, at Virginia and against No. 2 Florida State. Though Virginia might be the best Coastal team, it’s an uphill battle for the Cavs to clinch a berth in the ACC title game with road games against Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia Tech, plus a home game against Miami to end the season.




Tyler from Athens, Georgia, writes: Hey, Andrea, I was wondering if this could be the year, even with the struggles on offense, that the Hokies get back to 10 wins?

Shanker: I’m not Andrea, which is bad news for the Hokies. Stick with me here. Virginia Tech is 4-3 after Thursday’s loss and needs to win out and either play in and win the conference championship, or their bowl game. With a decently tough second half of the schedule (by ACC standards) and a conference title game almost certainly against FSU, the odds are the Hokies don’t get 10 wins. Alas, if Andrea was answering this question, she certainly would say Virginia Tech won't get 10 wins, thus Black Cat-ting that prediction and causing Virginia Tech to win out.

But seriously, there was an outside chance if Virginia Tech beat Pittsburgh, but now the best they can finish the regular season with is nine wins. I think best-case scenario is they close out the regular season at 4-1, which still puts them at 8-4 going into a bowl game as the odds of making it to Charlotte are slimming by the week.




Wayne from Tallahassee, Florida, writes: Andrea, I think your black cat is worse than HD's Kiss of Death. Please no black cat for my Noles this weekend..........PLEASE!!!!!

Shanker: The Black Cat nickname actually originated in the press box of the Clemson-Florida State game, and it took an all-time Clemsoning effort for the Seminoles to stave off the curse that night. So far the Seminoles have been impervious to the Black Cat spell, but Notre Dame could be the toughest opponent they face all season. If Florida State loses, though, it won’t be because of Andrea, although feel free to blame her.

It’s a pseudo cop out to say this game comes down to turnovers, because a lot of games do, but it is especially key Saturday given the recent history of the teams. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is making critical mistakes that are either costing his team points or directly putting points on the board for the opponent. Though the Seminoles’ defense has been susceptible to big plays and a lot of yards, they squeezed Syracuse in the red zone last week. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has had a few costly turnovers this season, too, and Florida State’s defense is not good enough this season to continuously bail out an offense that puts it in a bad situation. The Seminoles have been great at doing that so far this season -- colleague David Hale with a stat that has their defense allowing just three touchdowns on drives beginning in their zone -- but it’s not the kind of situational football FSU coach Jimbo Fisher wants to continue playing.
Quin Blanding heard the talk nearly every day.

He was a five-star recruit. He could have played anywhere. But he wanted to play for a team that didn’t win a game in the ACC a year ago, for coaches whose job security was the source of constant rumors.

"I had people every day asking why I was going to Virginia," Blanding said. "But I knew I couldn’t let them distract me from what I wanted to do."

The pitch against Virginia was easy, but Blanding had gotten the behind-the-scenes tutorial on what the Cavaliers were building on defense, and he was intrigued.

[+] EnlargeQuin Blanding
AP Photo/Steve HelberLed by safety Quin Blanding, Virginia's defense has been stellar during the team's surprising start.
The 6-foot-4 safety from Virginia Beach would make the trip to Charlottesville regularly to talk with the players. He grew close with star safety Anthony Harris, and he learned the ropes. He heard the sales pitch for Mike London’s program -- not from the coaches, but from the players who saw a team on the brink of something special.

The knocks against Virginia were easy to ignore, Blanding said. Being a part of a team -- and in particular, a defense -- that was about to take a big step forward was an opportunity too good to pass up.

"That was exactly the message," Blanding said. "Time would tell, and it was our time now."

Last season, Virginia won just two games and was 0-8 in the ACC. That’s a fact, but it’s not something that gets talked about much.

This season, the Hoos (4-2, 2-0) are the only Coastal Division team without an ACC loss. That’s the only fact Virginia is focused on now.

"We know we didn’t perform well last year as a team, but we believed each year is a new year," Harris said. "We worked hard in the offseason to get better as a team so we could go out on Saturdays and show our record last year doesn’t reflect our level of talent."

That level of talent is impressive. Henry Coley and Eli Harold both rank in the top four in the ACC in sacks. David Dean, Max Valles and Daquan Romero have developed into versatile, disruptive forces. And in the back end, Harris has led a veteran group that has tormented opposing quarterbacks, while Blanding has quickly developed into a star. The true freshman currently leads the ACC in tackles, including racking up 28 in his past two games.

"Right away I could tell [Blanding] was a really bright guy and has a lot of knowledge about the game," Harris said of his fellow safety. "Physically, if you look at him, he’s a guy who could come in and contribute. So the big thing was just how fast he could pick up on the defense. With his football IQ, he’s done a very good job on that, and it’s shown in how he gets to the football and makes a lot of plays for us."

The early success in 2014 has been encouraging, but not a surprise.

Whether it was during Blanding’s recruitment or the long offseason following a frustrating season, Virginia’s players understood that the pieces were in place to create a winner, and they talked often about overcoming those small obstacles that had kept the unit from coalescing.

"Each year we bring in a lot of talented guys," Harris said. "Fitting it all together and making it work, for the last few years we hadn’t been able to do it, but we knew it was there."

In a way, that brutal 2013 was exactly what sold Blanding on the program, and it’s exactly what the veterans of the group needed to turn the corner.

"Sometimes it takes a team to really go through something before you can really find out how everybody fits into the puzzle, how to work through certain things," Harris said. "Trying to get over the hump, it’s just one or two plays that’s the difference. Some of the adversity we’ve faced the last few years, we really learned from and we’ve really been able to grow."

On Saturday, Virginia travels to Duke in a game that could put the Cavaliers squarely in the driver’s seat in the Coastal. That is a possibility that sounded absurd to so many outside the program two months ago, but for those who had seen blueprint being drawn, it’s exactly where they expected to be.

"We feel like there are a lot of guys who have matured and grown a lot, and we’re speaking up and setting high expectations for the team," Harris said. "We feel like if we’re all bought in and have the same goal, we’ll be able to get it done."

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