“Obviously, it’s very disappointing to lose a game like this,” UNC head coach Butch Davis said in his postgame press conference. “We played so well for the first 30 minutes of the game, and played so poorly the second 30 minutes of the game.”
The Tar Heels (2-1, 1-0 ACC) committed 14 penalties for 121 yards and lost the turnover battle, 4-2, in a game that showcased why Virginia Tech (3-1, 2-0 ACC) has been the dominant program since joining the ACC in 2004. The Hokies played sound defense (allowing 307 yards), succeeded in containing Brandon Tate on special teams (five total returns for 99 yards), and took advantage of their scoring opportunities on offense (268 total yards). Frank Beamer and Co. are now 16-1 on the road in the conference play.
There was optimism in Chapel Hill that this was the season for the Tar Heels to supplant Virginia Tech at the top of the Coastal Division. With Orange Bowl and Champs Sports Bowl officials in attendance, as well as a packed house of elite-level recruits, North Carolina outplayed the Hokies for nearly 40 minutes.
Yates continued his strong start through three games, completing 11 of his 18 passes for 181 yards and a 32-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Tate that put North Carolina on top 10-3.
But UNC managed only three points on a Jay Wooten 27-yard field goal in the early going, despite starting its first three possession inside Virginia Tech territory.
It looked as though the Tar Heels would be able to withstand Yates’ absence following a left ankle sprain that occurred on an 18-yard sack just over five minutes into the second half. The sophomore signal caller’s X-rays came back negative, and a more in-depth official update is expected Sunday afternoon.
Red-shirt freshman Mike Paulus (3-of-8, 23 yards, 2 interceptions) stepped into the quarterback spotlight for the first significant action of his career, and on his first snap from center, Greg Little (18 carries for 71 yards) took his handoff and scampered 50 yards down the middle of the field to increase North Carolina’s lead to 17-3.
But that marked the end of the highlight reel for the Tar Heels.
On the ensuing possession, Tyrod Taylor (11-of-21, 125 yards passing, 35 yards rushing) marched the Hokies down the field on a 13-play, 89-yard drive – more yards than Virginia Tech had in the entire first half – that ended in a Darren Evans 10-yard touchdown run.
Two plays later, Little fumbled the ball on UNC’s 32-yard line, as Devon Morgan recovered for the Hokies. This time it was Kenny Lewis dashing into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown that knotted the score at 17.
“I think any skill player, whether it’s a receiver, tight end, quarterback or running back, the No. 1 criteria to be a good player is ball security,” Davis replied when asked about Little’s miscue. “You’ve got to protect the football. I don’t care if you can run a 4.2 [and] I don’t care if you can run it for 200 yards. If you lay the ball on the ground, you can’t play, and that’s the bottom line.”
Paulus was only able to move the offense into Virginia Tech territory once, shortly after Dustin Keys connected on his second field goal attempt (19, 45) of the day to move the Hokies out front, 20-17. The Tar Heels drove to their opponent’s 23-yard line before Paulus was intercepted by Macho Harris just shy of the goal line with 7:24 to play in the fourth quarter.
But this loss does not fall at Paulus’ feet. Once their working margin jumped to 14 points, the Tar Heels were beset with mental mistakes and turnovers. Quan Sturdivant (9 tackles) picked up a 15-yard personal foul after holding the Hokies to a fourth down on their first touchdown-scoring drive, and then Deunta Williams (4 tkls, 1 INT) was called for a hold on a third-down pass play at the goal line.
Add in Little’s fumble and a tired North Carolina defense, and the rally table was set for Virginia Tech.
“There were some things that we did that hurt ourselves,” said senior linebacker Mark Paschal, who posted a game-high 12 tackles along with an interception and a sack. “We were in a situation where we had a third down and stopped them, and then [got called for] a penalty and they got a first down… The schemes were good and we played our butts off, but it’s just frustrating to give up a 14-point lead like that.”
The Tar Heels must now clear their heads of the “what might have been” thoughts and prepare for a challenging road trip to Miami next Saturday.