Barth’s heroics capped off a stunning turn of events that began with an epic UNC 16-play, 78-yard scoring drive. After that game-tying possession, defensive tackle Tydreke Powell forced a Ryan Williams fumble that safety Deunta Williams recovered on Virginia Tech’s 24-yard-line with 2:02 left in regulation.
The Tar Heels blended a tenacious defense with an efficient running game to outlast the Hokies in front of a primetime national audience. Shaun Draughn (77 yards on 12 carries) and Ryan Houston (66 yards on 18 carries) drove UNC’s rushing attack to a 181-yard performance, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
North Carolina took a 7-0 lead into halftime following a 13-play, 84-yard drive that ended with a T.J. Yates-to-Jhay Boyd connection on a fade route for a 13-yard touchdown. But both offenses found their rhythm after the break, as Tyrod Taylor (11-of-23, 161 passing yards, minus-8 rushing yards, 2 TD) scored the first of his two one-yard touchdown runs on Virginia Tech’s opening third-quarter possession.
The Tar Heels answered with another mammoth drive that added seven more points to the score when Yates (18-of-28, 131 yards, 2 TD, INT) found Greg Little for a 15-yard touchdown in the left corner of the end zone. UNC’s red-shirt junior quarterback made what appeared to a lethal mistake when he threw an interception inside his own 10-yard-line that led to a Hokie touchdown and a 17-14 lead, but Barth converted chip shot field goals on North Carolina’s final two drives to pull out the victory.
North Carolina earned its fourth-straight win over a ranked opponent on Thursday, despite entering the contest as a 16.5-point underdog. It was only the program’s third road victory against a top-15 team in the last 30 seasons and the first since a 38-3 blowout at Clemson in 2001.
INSIDE THE GAME
Defense Making Plays
Everett Withers’ defensive unit has ranked near the top of the national rankings in yards allowed per game all season long, but the difference in a good defense and a great defense resides is its ability to make plays when needed.
North Carolina accomplished that goal at two critical junctures in the victory over Virginia Tech. In a setting as hostile and vicious as Lane Stadium on a Thursday night, the key for a visiting team is to weather the initial storm.
Ryan Williams (96 yards on 23 carries) started the game with a 25-yard scamper to midfield. With the crowd foaming at its mouth, Taylor connected with Jarrett Boykin for a 20-yard pass inside UNC’s 30-yard-line on the next play. But cornerback Charles Brown reached in and popped the ball out, giving Kendric Burney the opportunity to recover the fumble and prevent an early knockout.
After two quick three-and-outs by the Tar Heel offense, Frank Beamer played aggressive and went for a 4th-and-3 on North Carolina’s 34-yard-line in an effort to score the game’s first points. But Brown was there once again, breaking up a short pass to Dyrell Roberts.
The Hokies faltered over their next three possessions with consecutive three-and-outs.
Then there was the play that will dominate the television highlight packages for the next 24 hours.
“As in the case of most games, turnovers pretty much determined the outcome,” UNC head coach Butch Davis said. “Tydreke Powell’s strip on the fumble and Deunta [Williams’] recovery – that gave us a chance to win the game.”
With Virginia Tech facing a 3rd-and-6 with under 2:30 left on the clock inside its own 30-yard-line, Williams came face-to-face with Powell, who forced the ball out as the Hokie running back was falling to the ground.
“I thought the guy was down, but you can’t take any chances,” Deunta Williams said. “I saw the ball come out, so I picked it up and everything parted like the Red Sea and I thought I was going to score, but then it closed pretty quickly.”
Holding Virginia Tech to 256 total yards was critical, but it was the big plays early and late that made the victory possible.
The Return of the Offensive Line
It’s been 54 days since North Carolina’s starting offensive line has played a snap together, and it couldn’t have come at a more important point in the season. Offensive guard Jonathan Cooper (ankle) returned against Florida State and helped the Tar Heels churn out 238 rushing yards. Center Lowell Dyer made his first appearance since the season opener on Thursday, setting the stage for a strong offensive performance.
“We missed that consistency and continuity of having the best available players all season long,” Davis said. “… But it was good to get all of those guys back together as a unit and hopefully they’ll stay healthy and we’ll gain some momentum in that position group the rest of the season.”
Just how important is it to get the boys back together again? Consider this -- in North Carolina’s first four games this season against FBS-level competition, the ground game totaled 239 yards on 116 carries, good for a 2.1-yards-per-carry mark.
In the past two games, UNC has tallied 419 rushing yards on 83 carries, good for a 5.0 yards-per-carry mark.
“They gelled together last week and I think we’re building on that,” Draughn said. “For us to get the running game going and switching up the tempo and even lining Greg Little up in the backfield kept them on their toes.”
The Rise of a Playmaker
Greg Little has spent his career in Chapel Hill trying to find a home, whether it be in the offensive backfield, at kick returner or at wide receiver. On Thursday, the junior did a little bit of everything, posting 96 total yards of offense (58 receiving, 38 rushing) and catching a 15-yard touchdown pass on 3rd-and-8 in the third quarter to give UNC a 14-7 lead.
“One of the guys that I thought had a monster game was Greg Little,” Davis said. “I thought he showed up big, not only on the catches that he made down the field, but some of the runs he made on the perimeter. [Then] they took the perimeter away and he ran tough inside.”
Offensive coordinator John Shoop has made a concerted effort over the past two weeks to utilize Little’s talents, and those efforts have resulted in 204 total yards of offense and two touchdowns.
“When a play needs to be made, I’m definitely looking at myself to make that play,” Little said. “Just to want the ball in your hands – you have to do something with it. You can’t demand the ball if you’re not producing.”