For a struggling Tar Heel team, despite improved defensive play and a few bright moments offensively, it must have certainly felt that way.
What Went Wrong
The Tar Heels held a 3-0 lead and the momentum throughout the first quarter - almost. With just 58 seconds to go in that stanza, Virginia Tech’s Xavier Adibi wiped out a quarter’s worth of solid play with an interception and a 40-yard return to the one-yard line. That pick thrown by quarterback Joe Dailey was the first “lowlight” of the Tar Heels’ performance on Saturday, but not the last.
The Tar Heel staff decided to insert red-shirt freshman Cameron Sexton into the game after Dailey threw his second interception. Sexton entered with 5:12 left in the first half, the ball on UNC’s 24-yard line after a booming Tech punt and a mishandled catch.
McGill - 10 carries, 15 yds
Instead of igniting the offense, Sexton’s debut series resulted in a three-and-out, forcing a UNC punt. David Woolridge’s punt was blocked by Tech and by the time the dust cleared, the Hokies had possession on the UNC one-yard line. So hapless was the UNC offense on Saturday that the subsequent Tech touchdown made the game seem out of reach, even though Tech led only 14-3 as the result of two one-yard drives.
The other foibles of the UNC offense simply added insult to injury. UNC’s first two possessions in the second half with Sexton at quarterback netted 15 yards and no first downs. Dailey, reinserted into the lineup, was unable to ignite the UNC offense. Sexton would return and throw an interception that resulted in a 69-yard touchdown return, by now a familiar ESPN “highlight” of the game. Both UNC quarterbacks had two interceptions on the day.
The four interceptions weren’t the only problems for UNC offensively. After a decent run, Sexton would slide a yard short of the first down marker. As they did last Saturday, UNC would fail to convert another critical short yardage play, this time coming up short on fourth down. Most runs to the right side of the line were stuffed, and the going was tough against Tech’s defense all day; made more difficult by the Tar Heels’ errors and ineffectiveness in the passing game. The Tar Heels would finish the day averaging only 2.9 yards per rushing carry.
“We had some great field positions, we had some great opportunities. We've got to take advantage of the opportunities presented,” head coach John Bunting said following the game. But that was just half the story. The Tar Heel offense did not just fail to capitalize on the “opportunities presented,” they presented multiple opportunities for Virginia Tech.
The temptation is to simply write “Everything” under the “What Went Wrong” heading. However, that would ignore a solid effort by several UNC players, particularly defensively.
What Went Right
At halftime, the defense’s only sin was failing to stop Virginia Tech from scoring on two one-yard drives made possible by UNC turnovers. They had forced two turnovers themselves, one of the turnovers providing the offense with great field position – only to be nullified by an interception. The defense played admirably overall, yielding only 224 yards of total offense and nine first downs to the Hokies.
Tech was not able to sustain long drives against the Tar Heel defense. Their longest of the day was 55 yards. While Virginia Tech’s running back Brandon Ore made Tar Heel defenders look clueless at times on the way to 111 yards rushing on the day, UNC’s rush defense improved greatly from the 277 yards yielded a year ago in Blacksburg.
Durell Mapp’s return at weak-side linebacker made a noticeable difference in the defense. Victor Worsley turned in a respectable performance at middle linebacker, delivering one the best hits of the day on a tackle for loss. Hilee Taylor again played well, providing a consistent rush and notching his second sack of the season. Cooter Arnold is looking more and more comfortable at safety. Larry Edwards continues to play well and the UNC defensive line held its own against Tech.
Jacoby Watkins’ performances the past two weeks may be the two best of his career. He was the recipient of a questionable interference call last week, but against Tech he shut down his receiver all day. His greatest improvement defensively, however, is that he’s become one of the surest tacklers on the UNC defense.
Though obscured from view by glaring mistakes, there were a few bright spots for the offense. UNC’s young receiving corps continues to be impressive – when the ball is thrown their way. In particular, Hakeem Nicks is showing he is destined to be a great UNC receiver. Though it came when many of Tech’s first team defenders were on the sidelines, Sexton did direct an 80-yard scoring drive, capped by Brooks Foster’s first touchdown catch as a Tar Heel.
The Tar Heels follow their worst home loss since the 34-0 beating administered by Louisville in 2004 with Division 1-AA opponent Furman. If UNC performs as poorly offensively as they did Saturday, and as poorly defensively as they did a week ago to Rutgers, Furman could walk out of Kenan Stadium with a win. The more likely outcome is that UNC will use this game to try and heal some bruised egos, and more importantly – learn to win a ball game.