Examining Virginia Tech's 17-10 Win over #10 North Carolina
What Went Right and What Went Wrong for the Hokies?
Virginia Tech's 17-10 victory over #10 North Carolina was a much-needed reminder to Hokie nation of what their team can do and what its reputation has been built on since 1993, the start of the college football-record 27-year bowl streak. The win also moved Justin Fuente to 4-1 against the Tar Heels during his tenure as Virginia Tech's Head Coach, a real feather in his cap against a rapidly improving football program.
The last time that UNC came to Blacksburg, the game needed six overtimes and 84 total points to be settled; this game may not have had the same theatre or been drawn out as long, but it certainly sent a message to the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference that the Hokies are not going to roll over this season.
A Dominant Defensive Display
Most of the maroon and orange's dominance coalesced through a brilliantly executed defensive game plan under coordinator Justin Hamilton, the maestro of VT's defensive attack.
Hamilton's men came under fire immediately as UNC showed their hand from the first snap, sending preseason Heisman candidate, Sam Howell, back to pass on six straight plays before finally calling a designed run on the second play of the second drive. Howell was one of the NCAA's most accurate quarterbacks last year and specialized in airing the ball over the heads of the secondary, though the suffocating defense of Tech's defensive backs quickly showed that they were up to the challenge.
By the end of the four quarters, the UNC receivers failed to show that they could separate from the Hokies' man coverage; Josh Downs' eight receptions and 123 yards provided the only real spark to the Tar Heels' offense, and it was a limited one. The defense finished with five pass deflections, led by two from Armani Chatman.
VT's pass rushers also managed to get to the quarterback six times, tying the most sacks that Sam Howell has suffered in his collegiate career— the other time was against Notre Dame last year, who was ranked #2 in the country at the time. Combine this with nine tackles for loss (3.5 from Amare Barno alone) and it is clear to see how a candidate for best player in college football led an offense that scored 41.7 points per game in 2020 to a measly 10 against the Hokies.
Moving the Chains
On the flip side of the ball, VT's offense came out not with the intention of flattering themselves or their coordinator, but with the idea of physically imposing themselves against the UNC front-seven. The Hokies went 75 yards on eight plays with only one "real" pass, excluding a sideways flip to Tre Turner to start the game, and that was on a wheel route to running back Raheem Blackshear.
While the limitations of the playbook were apparent from the conservative nature of Offensive Coordinator Brad Cornelsen's decisions, to say that the Hokies were anything less than effective would be untrue. The consistent ground attack behind an overpowering offensive line kept UNC on their heels and eventually opened up a looping, 34-yard hookup from Braxton Burmeister to Tre Turner, which was converted for a touchdown by James Mitchell three plays later.
There were no standouts in the final box score, but the most important statistic was the time of possession, which Virginia Tech dominated 34:57 to UNC's 25:03. They also turned the ball over two times to the visitors’ three, putting them on the right side of the line.
While one game does not decide an entire season, the maroon and orange showed that they want to pound the rock with any one of their running backs, receivers, or their quarterback; it will be interesting to see if the coaches allow Burmeister to air the ball out against Middle Tennessee State next weekend and trust him to make plays against a lesser opponent, or if they are totally committed to their ground-based system. Regardless, it is hard to argue with the efficiency that they showed in their opening-week matchup.
A 17-10 final score was not the most exciting outcome in the world, but it was the first time that Virginia Tech had defeated a top-10 opponent since 2009; they jumped out to an early lead, shut down a Heisman candidate, and showed that, for now, last year was an aberration.
The most impressive aspect of the Hokies' display last Friday was their situational play; they went 6-13 (46.2%) on third down to UNC's 2-10 (20%) and, when it looked like Howell was leading a game-tying fourth-quarter drive, forced a turnover to effectively end the contest. Whether it was driven by the return of 66,000 fans or a desire for revenge, there was a spirit in the team that had not been seen for a long time.
Every week is about going 1-0, and Virginia Tech cleared the bar against the #10 team in the country— up next, a date with Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. ET.