"We made a lot of mistakes today," UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the game. "We played hard. It was good to see our guys turn it loose a little bit and just play, but we just made too many mistakes in a game on the road in the conference to be able to win a game like that."
Virginia Tech's offense represented an opportunity for UNC's defense to rebuild confidence after allowing East Carolina to rack up 603 yards last weekend. After all, the Hokies entered the game ranked 91st or worse nationally in seven statistical categories, including total offense (328.6 ypg; 107th).
First, the good news: UNC held Virginia Tech to 48 rushing yards on 34 carries, good for a 1.4 yards-per-carry average. The Tar Heels held the Hokies to 64 yards after halftime, including just 13 in the third quarter.
The bad news: Two breakdowns in the secondary allowed a Virginia Tech wide receiver to run behind the defense for big plays that forced UNC's offense to play from behind most of the day.
Hokies QB Logan Thomas (19-of-28 passing, 293 yards, 3 TD) connected with Demitri Knowles on a post route for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 4:11 to play before halftime. Knowles ran past cornerback Tim Scott for the wide-open catch in the end zone.
UNC was set up in quarters defense on that play, which is a Cover-4 look, but miscommunication led to the missed assignment. South Carolina hit on a 65-yard post route against the same defensive set in its season-opening 27-10 win over the Tar Heels.
And with Virginia Tech backed up on its goal line late in the second quarter, Thomas found Willie Byrn running free behind safety Tre Boston for a 83-yard pass play. According to cornerback Jabari Price, UNC was anticipating the run and lined up too close to the line of scrimmage. The Hokies scored three plays later to take a 21-7 lead into halftime.
"All of the MA's in the secondary come from miscommunication," Price said. "Guys not getting the call, guys thinking they're going to pass off. When the defensive line or the linebackers mess up, it's typically a first down. But we have to be perfect in the back end, because when we mess up, it's a touchdown."
Virginia Tech's offense helped out at times with a handful of drops and several poor throws by Thomas, whose 293 passing yards marked the fourth-best outing of his career. North Carolina's defense, however, was solid for much of the game outside of those busted plays.
Perspective is important, however; Virginia Tech's 27 points and 341 yards mark its second-highest totals of the season against a FBS opponent.
UNC's problems existed beyond its defense. For the third week in a row, a penalty wiped a touchdown off the scoreboard. Ryan Switzer's 81-yard punt return for touchdown was nullified by an illegal block in the back.
The Tar Heels committed a season-high 11 penalties for 79 yards. Five were called on the offensive line.
"It was really tough," left tackle James Hurst said. "Russ [Bodine] got a couple of holding calls. I had a false start. [Jon] Heck had a false start. I don't know what it was. Their D-line was good, so maybe they were just getting off our block and we weren't able to be in good position."
Junior Bandit Darius Lipford – who was called for a face mask late – offered his insight into the reason behind the penalties, which have been a problem all season. UNC ranked 102nd in penalty yards and T-85th in penalties prior to kickoff.
"Penalties are mainly just alignment assignment," Lipford said. "As long as you're where you need to be prior to the snap, it's easier for you to relax. You're not as tense. Offsides, false starts and things like that, I feel like those come from your alignment not necessarily being where you think it should be."
There are no legitimate excuses for the personal fouls, though. In his first game back since serving a two-game suspension, TE/LB Jack Tabb was ejected in the fourth quarter for throwing a punch, according to Fedora. The ACC will review the play, but there's a possibility that Tabb will be suspended for UNC's next game against Miami.
Compounding the special teams woes was Switzer's muffed punt midway through the fourth quarter that Chase Williams recovered at the 17-yard line. Two UNC penalties – a face mask and 12 men on the field – helped the Hokies extended their lead to 27-10 six plays later.
UNC lost the turnover battle, 3-0.
"We've got to do a better job of coaching," Fedora said. "The kids have got to do a better job of playing and being more disciplined. We've got to cut out just the small mistakes that we're making. It's just hit us at some unfortunate times."
The accumulation of those mistakes has resulted in UNC's first 1-4 start since 2007.