UNC’s 55-31 loss to East Carolina has been labeled by fans as one of the program’s most embarrassing showings at Kenan Stadium. The debacle prompted several players to claim the Tar Heels took ECU lightly, which played a role in preparation as UNC missed 37 defensive assignments and failed to make plays offensively in falling behind 35-10.
A repeat showing on Saturday in Blacksburg would likely result in an even more-lopsided defeat. Virginia Tech held off East Carolina, 15-10, in Greenville on Sept. 14 and enters this Coastal Division matchup as a 7.5-point favorite.
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, however, has dismissed any notion that North Carolina will turn in a similar performance this weekend.
“All I know is what I saw last year,” Beamer said this week, referring to UNC’s 48-34 victory over the Hokies. “A lot of the same people are back on this football team. I know how things go. I go back to Maryland beat West Virginia, then West Virginia goes out and beats Oklahoma State. Every week you can find somebody that surprises you, then there's another surprise the next week. This team is capable; excellent coaching staff. It's a good program.”
The Hokies (4-1) have developed a reputation this season as a team that grinds out wins with toughness. After holding top-ranked Alabama to 206 total yards of offense in its 35-10 season-opening loss, Virginia Tech gutted out wins over East Carolina and Marshall (29-21, 3 OT) before knocking off Georgia Tech, 17-10, in Atlanta last week.
Bud Foster’s defense ranks fourth in total defense (241.2 yards per game), fifth in passing yards allowed (138.2), third in team passing efficiency defense (80.78) and 19th in run defense (103.0).
East Carolina rolled up 603 total yards of offense against UNC, but only managed 311 against Virginia Tech.
When asked about the Hokies’ effectiveness against the Pirates, UNC head coach Larry Fedora offered this synopsis: "They just beat them up physically. That’s their game. They’re a physical team. They play with a lot of intensity, a lot of aggressiveness and they get after you.”
The Hokies limited the Pirates’ passing attacking with man free coverage and UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson expects to see more of the same on Saturday.
“Any time you play against a one high safety, a guy deep, you’ve always got to be aware of where he’s at,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to move him or you’ve got to work away from him…. So we’ll do our best to get his eyes going one way and throw the other, or we’ll work away from where he’s at.
“But you still have to be able to push the ball downfield, so we’ll utilize the run game as best we can to get him occupied [and the] screen game, and keep his eyes somewhere else.”
Foster is able to run that type of defense due to possessing a wealth of talent in the secondary, including cornerback brothers Kyle and Kendall Fuller, that has accumulated 11 interceptions through five games (T-1 nationally). That secondary stable adds another body this week as All-ACC cornerback Antone Exum was cleared to play after suffering an ACL injury in January.
And while Virginia Tech’s front four, headlined by defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins, is plenty capable of generating pressure, Foster’s aggressive style will include a blitzing bonanza, especially against UNC’s inexperienced offensive line.
“They’re going to bring the house,” Anderson said. “Bud Foster is not afraid to blitz. He’ll blitz everybody. He’ll take a couple off the bench and blitz them, too.”
UNC saw plenty of zero pressure from the Hokies last season and capitalized with 262 rushing yards from Gio Bernard. The Tar Heels’ ground game is currently a shell of its 2012 version, which places a greater onus on quarterback Bryn Renner (91-of-152 passing, 1,117 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) to move the pocket and use his screen game to combat the pressure.
While Renner has struggled to replicate his success from the second half of 2012, Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas (84-of-159 passing, 919 yards, 5 TD, 6 INT; 128 rushing yards, 3 TD) has elevated his game after a rough junior season.
“I think he’s a lot better than he was last year,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. “He does a better job on early downs. He’s got a strong arm; sometimes he throws it through guys. There’s not a pass he can’t make.”
The Hokies’ offense is still a work in progress under first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler – Virginia Tech ranks 107th in total offense (328.6 ypg) – but Koenning highlighted its effectiveness on first and second downs by throwing the ball and spreading the field with empty sets.
According to Koenning, Virginia Tech’s concept packages are more diverse in scope. UNC was able to key in on the limited concepts last season and double certain receivers, but that won’t be an option this time around, which will force the Tar Heels to make plays in 1-on-1 matchups in space.
That has been a point on contention for the UNC defense. The unit missed 21 tackles against Georgia Tech and tallied 37 missed assignments against ECU. UNC currently ranks 105th nationally in total defense (459.8 ypg,), 112th in run defense (234.5 ypg) and T-93rd in scoring defense (32.5).
A win would keep North Carolina in the Coastal Division race. A loss would drop UNC to 1-4 on the season, representing its worst start since 2007.