Whether the Tar Heels could have prevailed in overtime is entirely speculative, but their surge in the fourth quarter provided reason for some optimism for a favorable ending. It was not to be.
After an emotional win against Miami the previous week, and facing the 18th-ranked team in the nation with a 10-day rest under their belts, the remarkable thing was that the much-maligned Tar Heel football team had fought their way to make an overtime conclusion a possibility.
“That's a good football team we just lost to,” head coach John Bunting said following the game. “They are very, very physical, they are very, very established, very, very mature and experienced. We had a chance to win it.”
Virginia Tech had a good, no, make that a great offensive game plan for Saturday. They ran misdirection plays against an inexperienced Tar Heel front four, complicating assignments, mixed in with the option attack that has baffled the Tar Heel defense all season.
The game plan worked well. Mike Imoh, a hard-running, quick, and elusive back made the most of the opportunities created by the misdirection plays and as a result torched the UNC defense for 236 yards. Long scoring drives brought the Hokies into the red zone on virtually every possession.
With all of these things working in favor of Virginia Tech, the UNC defense ought to have had another one of their 500-plus yard defensive efforts and given up in excess of forty points.
But they didn’t.
In the first half, Virginia Tech had to settle for three field-goal attempts in the red-zone. Despite having their first scoring drive for a touchdown handed to them on two third-downs converted by UNC penalties, the Hokies led by only three points at the end of the first half.
The Hokies came out in the third quarter prepared to deliver the knockout blow to the Tar Heel defense. They nearly did. The Hokies extended their lead to 13 points before the Tar Heels scratched with a field goal. This is when the Tar Heel defense - young, inexperienced, and on the field too much through three quarters - was supposed to fold and allow the Hokies to win going away.
It did not happen.
The fourth quarter saw no further scoring by Virginia Tech, as the Hokies went three-and-out on consecutive possessions and were forced to punt on another possession. The Tar Heels yielded only 26 yards in the final stanza, and the defense – a remarkable statement – put the Tar Heels in a position to force overtime.
Perhaps more in-depth analysis could provide a detailed account of the changes the Tar Heels made on defense to stymie the Hokies in the fourth quarter. There were some dropped passes by Tech receivers, which helped the cause, though the Tar Heel defense did appear to become more aggressive. But far more than changes in schemes, or dropped passes by Tech receivers, it appeared to me the Tar Heels just willed themselves to stop the Hokies.
It was a gutsy performance, and one which the defensive players and staff should be proud. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh turned in one of the finest individual defensive performances witnessed in Kenan Stadium since Julius Peppers’ 2001 game against Virginia.
When the dust had finally settled, the Tar Heels had held Tech to 370 yards, the fewest yards allowed by the UNC defense all season.
Before being overly critical of the North Carolina offense, which will take some heat this week, I felt that the Hokie defense was as athletic, as disciplined, and as well-prepared as any defense the Tar Heels have faced this season, and the Heels have faced some very good defenses.
The Tar Heels got a solid performance from their offensive line and from senior tailback Chad Scott. They were not as successful as they were a week ago versus Miami, but for good reason. The offensive line, along with the blocking of fullback Madison Hedgecock, was able to open some holes in the Tech defense, but on numerous occasions the Hokies quickly closed gaps that appeared to offer the opportunity for many more yards that the actual result.
Bunting has noted on many occasions that the North Carolina defense often fails to “fill” gaps on defense, and if the Tar Heel defensive staff needs a primer on how this is done, the game tape from Saturday is it.
Darian Durant will also come under some criticism, mainly for an interception that gave the Hokies a short field in the first half, and for taking an eleven-yard sack that deprived the Heels of an opportunity to send the game into overtime. While taking that criticism, the pundits should also factor in a perfectly thrown ball while under tremendous pressure that resulted in a 49-yard touchdown catch by Wallace Wright.
That’s Darian Durant.
With two games left in his career, it is too soon to write the story of Durant’s tenure at North Carolina. When that story is written, however, it will surely include spectacular plays and heart-breaking plays – and with Durant it has always seemed to be one or the other. The holder of virtually every passing record at UNC also has a record of costly mistakes, though in his defense, they were often as a result of attempting to make the “big play” at a critical moment in the game.
Such a critical moment came when the Tar Heels were driving for what looked to be the winning score, or at a minimum, the tying score that would force overtime. On the Virginia Tech 24-yard line, well within Connor Barth’s range, Durant and the Heels were faced with third-and-eight. Clearly it was in Durant’s mind, and in the mind of the coaching staff, to get in the end zone for a touchdown and get the win without having to win in overtime. It was time for a “big play.”
Tailback Chad Scott got open, and Durant nearly threw the ball at that moment in time. Scott, however, had not made his turn soon enough, and Durant hung on to the ball trying to buy time. From Durant’s blind side, Tech defensive end Jim Davis drilled him to the ground, an eleven-yard sack that made Barth’s attempt 54-yards instead of 43-yards.
Had Durant made that completion to Scott and the Heels gone on to win in regulation, he would be the darling of UNC fans everywhere today.
He didn’t, and he won’t.
Special teams and turnover margin
This is one of those occasions when I feel like deviating from my usual “defense, offense, special teams” format for these articles. The UNC special teams were stellar on Saturday, and in terms of the three units, was by far the most effective.
The Tar Heels did not allow any extraordinary returns by the Hokies all day and gave themselves chances to win with a 46-yard kickoff return by Trimane Goddard late in the third quarter and with Jarwarski Pollock’s 28-yard punt return in the fourth quarter.
And we haven’t even gotten to the best part. The Tar Heels recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown for the first time since 1998. All this came against a team that prides itself in special teams play, affectionately known as “Beamer Ball,” at Virginia Tech.
The Tar Heels were minus one in turnover margin, but it should have been an even game in turnovers. On Tech’s first drive, Mike Imoh fumbled the ball and the Heels recovered, as clearly shown in replays. It was a blown call, but blown calls happen during the course of a season.
I am surprised that another feature of this Tar Heel team hasn’t received more attention – the UNC strength and conditioning program. Miami and Virginia Tech have two of the more nationally acclaimed S&C programs in college football. Both last week and this week the Tar Heels looked to be as well conditioned, if not better conditioned, than the athletes of either of these widely-praised S&C programs.
Many prognosticators believed that the Tar Heels, who hadn’t played well in back-to-back games all season, would follow their usual pattern and lose by more than the 10-point spread in this game. The argument went that the Heels would find it impossible to get back up from their emotional win over Miami and would instead come out flat against Tech. Additionally, many believed that Virginia Tech would simply wear out the Tar Heels on both sides of the line and dominate the fourth quarter.
None of that happened.
There is another monkey on the Tar Heel back. As many in the media are growing fond of repeating, the Tar Heels haven’t won back-to-back games since the 2001 season. That is precisely the task they have to accomplish if they are to finish with a winning record and become bowl eligible.
There are two winnable – but not exactly easy – games left for the Tar Heels, on the road versus Wake Forest next week and the season finale at Duke. Few would have predicted that at this point in the season there would be some drama left in the UNC season.
But there is.