BLACKSBURG - Virginia Tech sits atop the ACC Coastal Division alongside Miami with identical 2-0 records in the conference.
The Hokies two losses this season haven’t derailed their hopes of reaching the ACC Championship game, but don’t bring that fact up to coach Justin Fuente.
“I don’t think we need to focus on that,” Fuente said. “We need to focus on ourselves and on our improvement. I heard quite a bit of chatter about, ‘We’re 2-0 in the league,’ and all that sort of stuff. To me, that’s counterproductive to what we’re trying to get done here. We need to focus on our improvement and finding a way to get better and give ourselves a chance to win, regardless of whether it’s a league game or a non-league game.”
Fuente wants Virginia Tech focused on the task at hand — beating a well-rested North Carolina. The Tar Heels are 1-4 this season after getting beat two weeks ago by Miami, but Fuente isn’t taking the challenge lightly.
“We have a young group here that needs to focus on their improvement,” Fuente said. “We better do a great job as coaches continuing to demand that from them on a weekly basis.”
Fuente made it clear to his team this week that North Carolina is better than its record shows. If the Hokies need convincing, he can point to the Tar Heels' upset win over Pittsburg in Week 4.
“I just think that when they take care of the football, they’re pretty prolific offensively,” Fuente said.
Virginia Tech wants to keep an eye on North Carolina receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Ratliff-Williams scored his team's lone touchdown in last year’s game against the Hokies, but the 43-yard score was his only catch. The junior is averaging 20.23 yards per catch this season, which is fifth in the ACC.
North Carolina’s offense around Ratliff-Williams hasn’t been very consistent, but Fuente sees the group improving. The team had a season-high 215 rushing yards (5.4 yards per carry) against Miami.
Fuente sees North Carolina making strides defensively as well.
“They’re continuing to kind of grow,” Fuente said. “They’ve always been very big and physical up front. This year is no exception. They’ve had some young guys that they’ve played, particularly last year, I think you can tell when you watch the film they’ve improved.”
North Carolina's two key defensive playmakers are experienced seniors.
Defensive lineman Malik Carney has 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season while walk-on turned scholarship linebacker Cole Holcomb has 28 tackles in four games this season with 4.5 for a loss. Holcomb has led North Carolina in tackles each of the past two seasons.
The encouraging sign for Fuente is that he welcomed a motivated bunch to practice to start off the week following the team's disappointing loss to Notre Dame.
“You have got to look at it with open eyes and see there is some guys out there that are just lying it on the line playing particularly well,” Fuente said. “We certainly made some mistakes that hurt us and we got to all share and own that and move forward with that. They certainly weren’t all walking around with smiles on their faces. They certainly in the dumps where we couldn’t get them to do anything. I think they understood and took it in.”