The Tar Heels’ hopes for a special season took a body blow Saturday evening, losing 20-17 to Virginia Tech after holding a 17-3 lead. A critical injury to T.J. Yates’ ankle may have an even longer term effect on the UNC season.
WHEN THE TIDE TURNED
Though the defense played well for most the game, they helped sustain a 13-play, 89-yard drive that led to a Virginia Tech touchdown late in the third quarter. A personal foul and holding call – both which occurred on third-down - helped the Hokies after they crossed into Tar Heel territory. This became even more costly when, on the ensuing UNC possession, Greg Little’s fumble put a tired North Carolina defense right back on the field. Virginia Tech scored again, taking advantage of a short-field, and tied the score at 17-17.
“The penalties …probably the frustration there, and guys just getting tired and guys just getting sloppy, I don’t know…I know this, if you lose the turnover war and you make a lot of penalties you’re probably going to lose the game,” head coach Butch Davis said.
After a three-and-out forced a punt, the Heels were flagged again for a late-hit out-of-bounds, giving Virginia Tech possession at UNC's 29-yard line. That resulted in a Hokie field goal, giving them the lead, 20-17, with 10:42 left in the fourth quarter – with Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates sitting on the sidelines with an injured ankle.
“Whenever you get an opportunity to get off the field you need to take advantage of it," linebacker Mark Paschal said. "Especially on third-and-five, third-and-seven, those are opportunities when we can get ourselves off the field. When you don’t make plays and when you put yourselves in stupid situations and you make mental errors, it’s frustrating. It’s something you hope the guys will learn from and try to build on."
If you’re looking for the critical juncture where the Tar Heels lost this game, it was on the two penalties during the Virginia Tech 13-play drive that turned the tide. Without the personal foul call, the Hokies have to punt. Without the pass interference call, the Hokies, at best, kick a field goal to make it 17-6. After playing relatively penalty-free at Rutgers, the Tar Heels exceeded 100 penalty yards for the first time since a 2005 loss at Wisconsin (121 penalty yards). An otherwise excellent defensive strategy and game plan were marred by costly penalties.
SHAKE UP AT QUARTERBACK
The Hokies made good on their promise to pressure Yates. On occasion, Virginia Tech would bring eight players on a blitz. On one such “jailhouse blitz,” Yates delivered a quick pass to Brandon Tate past the blitz, and Tate used his open-field skills to score the Tar Heels’ first touchdown.
When Yates received good protection, he accurately delivered the ball. Most importantly, he didn’t make “the big mistake.” He often threw the ball away when the play wasn’t there. When he left the game with a turned ankle, he had completed 11-of-18 attempts for one touchdown and no interceptions.
His replacement, Mike Paulus, was far less successful. The red-shirt freshman completed 3-of-8 passes and tossed two interceptions. Paulus admitted to pressing at times.
“The first [interception] one, yeah, I’d say I forced it,” Paulus said. “We had a little bit of a drive going there, completed a few passes and a nice couple of runs, got in the twenty-, thirty-yard line -- you got to protect the ball, there’s no excuses for it. I saw Brooks [Foster] come open, and then out of the corner of my eye saw a crossing route and thought I could put it over the backer and I did, but it was too high for Hakeem.
“We made some adjustments at half-time. They had a couple of new blitzes that we didn’t see they were coming with from their previous games this year.”
Yates’ ankle has been X-rayed, and there are no broken bones. There may be an update on his status tomorrow.
HEELS BOTTLE UP TAYLOR
Tyrod Taylor, who had averaged 93 yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry in his previous two games, was effectively neutralized by the UNC defense. The entire Virginia Tech offense, in fact, was squelched by the Tar Heels until the fourth quarter. At the end of the third quarter, the Hokies had only 10 first downs. They matched their entire output of first downs in the first three quarters in the fourth quarter, finishing with 20 first downs.
“I think our players pressed a little bit late in the ballgame, trying, when the momentum was slipping," Davis said. "Was any of that due to being young and inexperienced? I think there's a certain validity to some of that stuff, but I think some of it is you’ve got to play one play at a time. I thought the defense played so very well for a long period of time, until they just got worn out.”
The key to limiting the Hokies’ early was forcing Taylor out of his comfort zone – in effect, forcing him to stay in the pocket. Taylor tossed his first two interceptions of the year, picks by Mark Paschal and Deunta Williams.
Taylor finished with only 35 yards rushing on 12 carries, a 2.9 yard-per-carry average. Taylor was also shaken up late in the game, and was replaced by Sean Glennon, who completed his only attempt of 11 yards.
FIELD POSITION = TERRENCE BROWN
Though the punter, particularly in a loss, is easy to overlook, the Tar Heels enjoyed great first-half field position in large part to Brown’s talents. He punted five times for an average of 44.2 yards, and had three punts downed inside the fifteen yard line.
“I think Terrence Brown did a spectacular job as he’s done all year long," Davis said. "He is such a gifted kid in his ability to place the football, to keep the ball out of peoples’ hands, to down it inside the ten, inside the five, I think that played a huge role with how successful our defense played early in the ballgame.”
UNC’S GROUND GAME STILL LACKING
Aside from a single 50-yard run by Greg Little for a touchdown to put the Heels up 17-3, he rushed 17 more times for 21 yards, while Shaun Draughn ran five times for 10 yards. Little and Draughn each committed a fumble.
Butch Davis indicated that there was enough blame to go around for the lack of a ground game.
“We we’ve got to do a much more effective job blocking at the point of attack," UNC's coach said. "Our offensive line, and our tight ends, and our running backs have got to run where they are supposed to go, we’ve got to do some work on our running game.”
FOSTER GETS TO SHINE
Though it was in a losing cause, Brooks Foster, often playing in the shadows of fellow wide receivers Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks, had a very solid game. Foster got involved early on a couple of end-arounds, one which help set up the Tar Heels’ first score, a field goal early in the second quarter. Foster had his best game of the year, catching three passes for 52 yards, and rushing three times for 45 yards.
This was a game that the Tar Heels were in a position to win and should have won. While the disappointment of the loss will linger, and the cloud of Yates’ injury hangs over the rest of the season, what this game showed was that the Tar Heels still have some growing up to do.