Expectations were high for Virginia Tech (3-2, 1-0 ACC) entering this season following an 11-3 campaign in 2011. If not for Clemson, the Hokies may have run the table last fall. The Tigers defeated Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. on the first Saturday in October, as well as in Charlotte, N.C. at the ACC Championship Game. Nonetheless, head coach Frank Beamer's squad still had the opportunity to win a BCS game after it received an at-large bid to face Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. The Wolverines defeated the Hokies 23-20 in overtime, but the loss did not dampen expectations for the 2012 season.
Virginia Tech returned nine starters to a defense that ranked in the top-10 in total defense and scoring defense in 2011. The defense was expected to be one of long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster's best units in a long list of great defenses. Injuries to linebacker Tariq Edwards and All-ACC cornerback Kyle Fuller have slowed the defense, but both are likely to be on the field this Saturday.
The Hokies rank a disappointing 53rd in total defense (361.50 ypg), but are a respectable 23rd in scoring defense (17.20 ppg), good for third in the ACC behind Florida State and North Carolina. Despite the average overall rankings, the defense remains strong against the pass. The Hokies rank second in the ACC and 22nd in the country in pass efficiency defense (108.80), as well as third in the conference and 29th overall in total pass defense (193.20 ypg).
Virginia Tech did not return nearly as many players on offense (4) as defense but it did return the most important piece of the offense - quarterback Logan Thomas. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound junior was a break-out player in 2011 after converting to quarterback from tight end shortly after his arrival in Blacksburg. He was named second-team All-ACC last season and was second in the voting for the 2012 ACC Preseason Player of the Year. However, with unfamiliar parts surrounding him, Thomas has struggled to adjust this season. The Hokies rank 85th in total offense (373.40 ypg) and 61st in scoring offense (28 ppg).
With losses to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in September, Virginia Tech has now lost eight games before October since 2006. The Hokies typically right the ship and contend for the ACC Championship, but a loss to North Carolina on Saturday would leave Virginia Tech at 0.500 or worse at least six weeks into the season for the first time since 1992.
"They're dynamic. This is a really good football team and a hot football team." – Beamer on North Carolina
"I said at the start of the year that I thought we could be a good football team, but we weren't that right then. And I still feel the same way right now. But the message is just to keep working and we have some critical ACC games." – Beamer
"They're going to probably refocus on what they're doing and probably pay more attention to the details and come out and play hard. Coach Beamer has been there a long time so it's not like the philosophy is going to change. They'll probably just refocus and they'll play hard and they'll do what they're supposed to do." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora on how Virginia Tech will respond to losing two of its past three games
Matchups to Watch
Virginia Tech's Run Defense vs. UNC's Gio Bernard
For as well as the Virginia Tech defense has performed against the pass so far this season, it has struggled mightily to stop the run. The Hokies rank seventh in the ACC and 75th in the country in rushing defense (168.20 ypg). In a 35-17 loss to Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech surrendered 254 rushing yards.
Austin Peay senior Wes Kitts (110 yards) and Pittsburgh freshman Rushel Shell (157 yards) both scampered for over 100 yards against the Hokies. While both are talented backs in their own right, the Virginia Tech defense has yet to face a running back as versatile as North Carolina's Gio Bernard.
Despite missing two-and-a-half games this season due to injury, Bernard (29 car, 223 yards, 4 TD) has accounted for seven total touchdowns and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry. He is fourth on the team in receptions (12) and is also a threat on punt returns. Bernard averages a staggering 21.7 yards per return.
While Bernard presents a challenge to Virginia Tech, the Hokies offer a new level of competition for the red-shirt sophomore as well. Bernard has not played against a BCS-conference opponent since the 41-24 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl last December. With all due respect to Elon, East Carolina and Idaho, Virginia Tech is a different animal defensively.
"For me, I really want to show everybody that I can play against an elite team," Bernard told reporters on Monday. "Not just Idaho, not just James Madison, not just the Elon kind of games, but I just want to show everybody that I am able to play against elite teams and that our offense is able to do that, so I am excited for it. I'm really just ready to play against [Virginia] Tech, against an elite team and just show everybody what we can do."
Last fall against the Hokies, Bernard rushed for just 45 yards and was knocked out of the game in the first half with a concussion. Virginia Tech defeated the Tar Heels, 24-21. This time around, North Carolina will complement Bernard with A.J. Blue (50 car, 257 yards, 4 TD) and Romar Morris (44 car, 235 yards, 1 TD).
Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas vs. UNC's Defense
Thomas certainly possesses the size, strength and talent to be an elite quarterback. He displayed it last season on his way to earning second-team All-ACC accolades with the help of running back David Wilson and wide receiver Danny Coale. However, with the latter two now in the NFL, Thomas (78-of-148, 1093 yards, 8 TD, 6 INT; 53 car, 129 yards, 3 TD) has yet to achieve the success he did last season.
Some of this must be credited to the lack of experience surrounding Thomas. The Hokies only returned one skill position player, wide receiver Marcus Davis (19 rec, 375 yards, 1 TD), as well as one offensive lineman, center Andrew Miller, who was replaced by sophomore Caleb Farris in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati last week.
The North Carolina defense has put up impressive numbers so far this season. Vic Koenning and Dan Disch's defense is second in the ACC in sacks (14), first in tackles-for-loss (43) and ranks in the top-20 in the nation in rush defense (95.60 ypg), total defense (296 ypg) and scoring defense (14.60 ppg).
Despite the solid numbers, it is impossible to say for sure how good the Tar Heels' defense really is. The defensive struggles against BCS opponents Wake Forest and Louisville are certainly masked by blowout victories over Elon and Idaho in which North Carolina won by a combined score of 128-0.
The Tar Heels surrendered a career-high 327 passing yards to Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price as well as 279 yards to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater threw for 218 yards in the first half alone. Thomas has yet to throw for over 300 yards in a game this season. The only other ACC quarterback not to do so is Georgia Tech's Tevin Washington, who leads an option offense that rarely throws the ball.
Saturday offers a litmus test for the North Carolina defense as well as Thomas. The Tar Heels are susceptible to allowing big passing days from quarterbacks, yet Thomas has not thrown the ball well this season, even against lesser competition. It will be interesting to see which North Carolina defense shows up on Saturday and if Thomas is able to finally have a breakthrough game in 2012.