Even in the age of graduate transfers and an increasing number of waivers granted to make players eligible right away after leaving one school for another, Saturday’s showdown between Virginia and North Carolina is incredibly rare. It’s perhaps even an FBS first.
Virginia wide receiver T.J. Thorpe leads the Cavaliers into the game having made the game-winning touchdown catch in the meeting between the two ancient rivals a year ago. But Thorpe was playing for the Tar Heels when UNC delivered a heartbreaking loss to the Cavaliers in Charlottesville.
Now, Thorpe, a native of Durham, N.C., will return to Chapel Hill in a visitor’s uniform after graduating from North Carolina and transferring to Virginia to complete his final year of eligibility along with his graduate studies.
Thorpe and his unique situation were a hot topic of conversation when Virginia coach Mike London spoke with the media this week.
“He left for his specific reasons, and he has a lot of good friends on that team,” London said during his weekly Monday press conference. “He’s made great friends here on this team as well. The one thing that you have to do is you’ve got to play on the field. You can’t play the game in social media. You can’t play the game talking about it. You’ve got to play it by executing it.
“I know he wants to play well and he wants to be a part of the game plan and things that allows him to perform, and you know, just as I said, just leave it on the field. Just let your play do your talking. And I know he’s looking forward to this particular game.”
Just as the Tar Heels needed Thorpe’s heroics at Scott Stadium a year ago to salvage a 6-6 regular season and a trip to the Quick Lane Bowl, UVa (2-4, 1-1 ACC) needs a big game from the veteran wide out to have any shot at pulling off a big upset and keep hope of reviving its season alive coming off an overtime victory against Syracuse.
Thorpe missed four games early in the season after suffering a broken leg in preseason camp, but is averaging nearly 60 yards receiving per game since coming back.
With North Carolina boasting one of the ACC’s most potent offenses, Virginia’s best chance of winning as a 16-point underdog might come from outlasting the Tar Heels in a shootout. That means Cavaliers quarterback Matt Johns could be targeting Thorpe early and often against his old team.
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora hopes familiarity plays in his team’s favor.
“I think all of our guys know him,” Fedora said during the weekly ACC teleconference. “They’ve played against him daily in practice, our defense. They understand what his skill set is. He’s a quality, quality receiver. He’s a good player. He can beat you deep, beat you underneath, he can be physical. Our guys know him. So hopefully that helps.”
Desperate for any victory, the Cavaliers hope knowing the opponent plays out in their favor instead and perhaps Thorpe can once again be on the receiving end of a game-winning touchdown.