UNC defensive tackle Sylvester Williams burst through the Virginia Tech offensive line and knocked the ball out of quarterback Logan Thomas's hands on the first play from scrimmage. Fellow tackle Tydreke Powell recovered the fumble at Tech's 20-yard-line and tailback Gio Bernard scored his 12th rushing touchdown of the season three plays later from four yards out.
The Tar Heels (6-5, 2-5 ACC) were in position to build upon that 7-0 lead on their next possession, but Ryan Houston fumbled for the second time in his career inside the five-yard-line at Lane Stadium. The Hokies (10-1, 6-1 ACC) responded with a mammoth 18-play, 95-yard drive that ended with a Chris Drager 11-yard touchdown reception.
Virginia Tech drove to the one-yard-line on its next possession, but UNC's defense delivered a strong goal line stand, forcing the Hokes to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Cody Journell. Thomas Moore missed a 43-yard field goal attempt in the final minutes of the second quarter that would have tied the score heading into halftime.
Thomas (19-of-32, 195 yards, 2 TD) increased the Hokies' lead to 17-7 with a 23-yard touchdown scamper three plays after a questionable pass interference call on 3rd and 13 kept the drive alive. Thomas then connected with D.J. Coles for a four-yard touchdown pass to stretch the margin to 24-7.
Bryn Renner (14-of-26 passing, 224 yards, TD) converted a 4th-and-goal from the five-yard-line and found Erik Highsmith (5 catches, 90 yards, TD) in the back of the end zone to trim Tech's lead to 24-14 with 7:06 left in regulation. The Tar Heels drove 91 yards on four plays, including a 64-yard pass play to Highsmith, to cut their deficit to 24-21 on Houston's 1-yard scoring plunge with 2:32 to play.
North Carolina needed the ball to travel 10 yards on its ensuing onside kick, but it only went nine and the Hokies effectively were able to run out the clock.
North Carolina outgained Virginia Tech, 358-340. Each team coughed up a fumble and both teams capitalized with touchdowns.
Dwight Jones caught six passes for 105 yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier for the season. Jones and Bernard are the first receiver-tailback duo to each break 1,000 yards in a season in school history.
INSIDE THE GAME
Bernard Injury Stunts Momentum
North Carolina trailed 10-7 in the second quarter with 4:49 remaining when Bernard shot through the Hokie defense for an 11-yard gain. A helmet-to-helmet tackle – that was not penalized by Ron Cherry's crew – delivered a blow that knocked UNC's offense off its rails.
Bernard was helped off the field and did not return after suffering a mild concussion.
Bernard's injury stifled what UNC was able to do offensively. The red-shirt freshman rushed for 45 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries and North Carolina averaged six yards per play (18 for 108) with him on the field. With Bernard sidelined, UNC managed just 55 yards on its next four possessions, including a pair of three-and-outs.
"That's a major hit," Jones said. "Gio's a special back. His running style is different from a lot of other running backs. He's able to see holes that other running backs [don't] and he's also able to make those game-changing cuts, backfield cuts, break away to the other side, so we missed him."
By the time North Carolina rediscovered its offensive rhythm – UNC totaled 172 yards on 19 plays in the fourth quarter – the deficit had grown to 24-7 by the end of the third quarter.
The Cruelty of Sports
In 2007, North Carolina trailed Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium, 10-3, in the third quarter but was driving to tie the ball game. True freshman tailback Ryan Houston got the call on 2nd and goal from the five-yard-line and plowed forward to the one-yard-line before fumbling the ball away.
The Hokies were able to flip the field and scored on their next possession to take a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter.
On Thursday, Houston was handed the ball on the same five-yard-line – this time a 1st and goal – and he fumbled a chance for UNC to take an early 14-0 lead. Virginia Tech capitalized with an 18-play, 95-yard drive to knot the game at 7-7.
"I pride myself on holding on to the ball, always keeping it high and tight," Houston said. "For me to lose the ball is just unreal to me. It hit me hard. The last time I remember fumbling is when I was here in my freshman year right on that same goal line, so it just brought back bad memories."
The tears flowed freely back in ‘07, and they were back again as Houston shared his thoughts on the disappointment of the loss.
"This is my last time here," Houston said. "Two years ago when we played here, we came up here and kicked butt. I felt like we could have done the same thing today and I just feel like I didn't do the best I can today to put my team in a position to win."
First Quarter Trend Breaks Down
Rarely does a statistic provide such clarity in determining a North Carolina victory or defeat, but first quarter scoring has provided that luxury this season… until Thursday.
Entering this week's matchup with Virginia Tech , UNC had outscored its opponents 49-0 in the opening quarter in its six wins, while being outscored 37-14 in its four losses.
The Tar Heels silenced the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd with a 14-0 first-quarter start at ECU in early October, but then allowed Clemson and N.C. State to grab early leads that kept their respective stadiums boisterous.
North Carolina built a 7-0 lead against Virginia Tech, marking the fifth time in seven games that the Hokies have trailed after the first quarter. But Virginia Tech has now won six of those seven contests.