On a frigid and blustery night in Blacksburg, kicking the ball wasn’t easy, a point interim head coach Everett Withers made following the game.
“It was a tough night to kick, and we didn’t kick it well, but a tough night to kick,” Withers said.
The Tar Heels missed two field goals, one from 38 yards out that came up short, and one from 43 yards that missed to the left by 15 to 20 yards. After having emphasized scoring touchdowns in the red zone, North Carolina’s players and coaches weren't willing to point a finger at the kicking game.
“There are a lot more plays in the game that, if we had capitalized, we would have been up, so we can’t put it all on the kicker – but it was tough,” said defensive lineman Tydreke Powell.
Withers added: “We wanted to score touchdowns and we weren’t able to do that. The more you get down there and the more you don’t score touchdowns, the more your team is going to suffer in the fourth quarter.”
Obviously any offense wants to score touchdowns in the red zone, but being able to kick field goals when needed can be the difference between losing and winning – ask Alabama.
“Especially to move the ball down there and to be able to get into field goal range, it hurts,” wide receiver Dwight Jones said. “But at the same time, we should be able to go down there and score touchdowns. They shouldn’t have to try to kick field goals.”
It wasn’t just the missed field goals that characterized North Carolina’s poor kicking game. Four North Carolina punts averaged 27.5 yards. On one punt of 31 yards, the Tar Heels were called for interfering with a fair catch, producing a net punt of 16 yards. On another occasion, a shanked punt netted about 13 yards before sailing out of bounds.
As Withers noted, it was a tough night to kick. Virginia Tech made a 22-yard field goal, missed a crazy 57-yard attempt, and the Hokies punter did not fare much better than Hibbard, averaging only 30 yards per punt. But as it did in just about every other phase of the game, Virginia Tech was just a little more effective than North Carolina in the kicking game.
The missed field goals and poor punting weren’t the only letdowns, offensive or defensively, as Withers noted.
“There’s always a handful of plays in a ballgame, anytime you’re playing a good football team, but we’ve got to be able to master some of those plays,” UNC's coach said. “Some of those four or five plays in the ballgame we’ve got to be able to make them, and we didn’t make them tonight."
Withers talked about several of those plays -- like the fumble in front of the goal line and allowing a 3rd-and-18 conversion on defense -- and there is sure to be some conversation about some questionable calls that went against North Carolina. In a tight game as this one turned out to be, putting your finger on the exact cause of a loss is impossible.
But kicking effectively is part of the game, too, especially when you are trying to win as an 11-point underdog on the road. It may not have been the sole contributor to Thursday's loss, but it’s a part of the game that needs to be addressed.