After a tight-first half, the Hokies steamrolled the UNC defense for 21 points in the third quarter and added a field goal in the fourth to punctuate their win.
"When we get off to a poor start in the third quarter, things start snowballing the other way," head coach John Bunting said, "I wish I had an explanation for it, but I just don't know, and it's very, very frustrating to me, the staff and the players alike."
With no bowl game to prepare for, the Tar Heels have until next September to find some answers.
Two factors stood out on offense. First, the Tar Heels were unable to run the ball effectively, something that plagued them all year against the better defenses in the ACC. Second, the Tar Heel receivers were unable to shake their season-long propensity to drop the football.
The Tar Heels moved the ball as effectively, or as ineffectively, as did Virginia Tech in the first half, but seemed to be gaining some momentum until a 40-yard drive ended with a blocked field goal attempt as the second quarter began. The offense was unable to mount another threat until just before the end of the first half, after an interception by Kareen Taylor gave them possession at the Virginia Tech 30-yard line.
The Tar Heels then moved the ball to the eight-yard line with the clock ticking down. Matt Baker's strike to Jesse Holley hit him right in the numbers in the back of the end zone – but the ball bounced off Holley's chest onto the Lane Stadium turf. The Tar Heels had to settle for a field goal. In many ways, that play was a metaphor for the Tar Heels' offense all season.
North Carolina received the ball to begin the second half, but was only able to advance the ball five yards. The ensuing punt was partially blocked by the Hokies, giving them excellent field position at North Carolina's 45-yard line. After that series, the Tar Heels fought poor field position for most the second half.
Falling behind by double-digits, the Tar Heel offense stalled as they sought to play catch-up football against a Tech defense that smelled blood. Their next two series went three-and-out, and the following series ended with a Matt Baker interception. Their final possession ended as a pass attempt failed on fourth-and-goal from the Virginia Tech four-yard line.
The Tar Heel tailbacks averaged only 2.6 yards per carry and the Tar Heel receivers dropped seven passes. Going into the season, the Tar Heels looked solid at wide receiver, on the offensive line, and seemed to be in decent shape at tailback, especially after Ronnie McGill returned. The big question mark in the preseason was how Matt Baker would perform at quarterback. Ironically, Matt Baker proved to be the most consistent performer on the offense, while the other pieces underachieved dramatically.
Baker deserves much credit for his efforts this season – it would be an interesting debate as to whether he, among all previous UNC quarterbacks, got the most from his abilities. His courageous efforts this season might have been more rewarding to him and the team had his receivers gotten as much from theirs.
It should be acknowledged that Virginia Tech has one of the best defenses in the nation. While it was expected that the Tar Heels would have trouble moving the ball against a stout run defense, they wasted many opportunities in the passing game with dropped balls.
The UNC offense – in its entirety – will be one large question mark going into the 2006 season.
The North Carolina offense – in its entirety – will be one large question mark going into the 2006 season. With offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill heading into retirement, the new brain trust on offense will inherit new quarterbacks, several key losses off a thin offensive line, a curiously underachieving receiver corps and an anemic rushing attack.
It doesn't sound promising.
While the North Carolina offense struggled the entire game, the defense played better than expected in the first half and Tar Heels went into the locker room at intermission down only three points, 6-3. Most of quarterback Marcus Vick's passes sailed high and long the entire first half.
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer decided there was a cure for that problem: Don't throw the ball at all. Vick attempted only two passes after halftime.
Vick spent the second half handing off to Cedric Humes, Brandon Ore, and George Bell, a Fayetteville, N.C. product. Together the three Tech rushers combined for a 6.1 yards per carry average and 278 yards, most of that damage coming in the second half.
The Tar Heel defensive line has played banged up and depleted the past two games. Virginia Tech's senior offensive line simply dominated the line of scrimmage the entire second half. The inability of the Tar Heel offense to make first downs and stay on the field added and abetted the Tech offense, as it became apparent that the UNC defense just wore down.
Several defensive players deserve mention and praise. Senior Tommy Davis totaled eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss -- his progress this season was significant. Junior linebacker Larry Edwards recorded 16 tackles against Virginia Tech in another stellar effort at strong side linebacker, finishing tied for the team-high with 91 tackles, including eight for a loss. Finally, even as sophomore defensive tackle Kyndraus Guy was being carted off the field with an ankle injury, his encouragement to his teammates demonstrated his heart and intensity.
It became apparent that the UNC defense just wore down.
The defense has to replace several stalwart players from this defense in 2006; Chase Page, Tommy Richardson, Cedrick Holt, and Davis. However, the improvement on defense should continue next season, as underclassmen should step up into more significant roles.
With a blocked field goal and a partially blocked punt, it is obvious that the protection schemes of the Tar Heels need work. Virginia Tech is known for its ability to block kicks, but North Carolina fell short accounting for this ability.
Brandon Tate continues to be a bright spot in the return game. Though held in check for most the contest, it was Tate's 35-yard return that set up the final Tar Heel drive that stalled on fourth down.
With kick-returner Tate, punter David Woolridge, and kicker Connor Barth returning in 2006, North Carolina will have experienced players in key positions. Hopefully, Barth will improve his accuracy for the next Tar Heel season.
Against the Hokies, the Tar Heels simply lost to a superior team on a mission to get to the ACC title game. While the Tar Heels lick their wounds over the holidays, they will have a long time to think about the "missed opportunities," that Bunting has referred to so many times this season.
A more efficient offense might have scored on their final drive against Georgia Tech and opened the season with a win. Likewise, the home loss to Wisconsin might have been avoided with even a slightly better offense. If the Heels could have avoided defensive breakdowns late in the Maryland game they would have still gone bowling, despite their other "missed opportunities."
The Tar Heels, however, have more important tasks ahead than mulling over the 2005 season. What could have been is past remedy. Instead of looking for reasons why they aren't bowling this season, they should instead be looking for an offense for the 2006 season and ways to continue their defensive improvement.