Saturday's multi-phase destruction of UNC was incredibly gratifying to watch. After a year of chirping. A year of excuses. A year of justifications, for the then-No. 17 Tar Heels' 34-3 loss to the Hokies, as though both teams weren't playing in the same weather conditions.
The Hokies and Heels are entirely different teams than they were a year ago; both programs had to deal with the departure of key players to the NFL Draft, and Carolina has found themselves decimated by injuries in 2017. Though the loss of major contributors will eventually debilitate even the most talented team, the absolute free fall UNC is experiencing illustrates just how quickly a program's fortunes can turn.
It was only two seasons ago that the Tar Heels clinched their first Coastal Division title during Frank Beamer's farewell game in Lane Stadium. That loss stung for everyone in and around Tech's program, not only for Beamer, but also for the dim picture it drew of the program's future. The Hokies would need a win over Virginia in their regular season finale to keep their bowl streak alive, while Larry Fedora appeared to have the makings of a perennial division title winner in Chapel Hill.
It feels like an eternity since that depressing autumn afternoon. Since that 2015, 30-27 overtime loss, the Justin Fuente-led Hokies have outscored Fedora's bunch 93-10. They've dominated Carolina in the rain and they've dominated them in the sunshine. Larry Fedora's ballyhooed offensive system has been felled in back-to-back seasons, exploited by Bud Foster's group in embarrassing fashion. In the last two contests, the Tech defense has surrendered 303 yards of total offense and their two defensive touchdowns Saturday mean that they've single handedly outscored Carolina.
When asked whether the big win was especially gratifying this time around, given the ideal weather conditions, Bud Foster pounced.
"They're banged up, and so are we at some spots too," said Foster. "You got 85 scholarships. Both teams do. And you're going to put your best 72 out there in ACC games. We can't control the weather. We can't control the injuries. The one thing we can control is our attitude, and our work ethic, and our commitment to one another, and I thought our kids exemplified that today."
Don't think for a second Virginia Tech's staff doesn't remember what's said by opposing coaches after a convincing win. Attributing a loss to the weather undermines the performance of both the Tech players and coaches. Now just imagine the shade Fuente and Foster will be looking to throw at Pat Narduzzi in a few weeks time.
Injuries happen. Weather happens. What separates the contenders from the pretenders is their ability to adapt to these hazards.
One thing is clear: The Hokies coaching staff does not like their Carolina counterparts one bit. Up 20-3 against Boston College, the Hokies took their foot of the gas for much of the second half; however, against UNC, Tech:
- Played their defensive starters well into the second half while hunting for a shutout;
- Attempted two fourth down conversions up 45 and 52 points, respectively; and
- Continued to throw the football until their final drive.
Almost immediately after taking over the helm, Fuente boisterously planted a Virginia Tech flag in the heart of North Carolina. In doing so, he put the Tech football program on the offensive. Not only would the Hokies strive to lock down the Commonwealth, but they would also tap into the fertile recruiting grounds of North Carolina too. What better way to simultaneously improve your roster and undercut the development of potentially your biggest divisional rival. Justin Fuente is Mr. Steal Yo Girl and Larry Fedora is the mark.
There were a number of high profile recruits and commits at Saturday's game, many of whom hold offers from both VT and UNC. Often times when a team struggles, recruits see it as an opportunity to step in and improve the squad. But let's be honest here: No one watching Virginia Tech's annihilation of the Tar Heels felt like Carolina is one or two players away from contention. Tommy Tuberville wasn't commenting on the ESPN broadcast about how Fedora's squad would be a completely different team if Jalen Dalton, Austin Proehl or Tyler Powell were able to play. The Hokies are on the rise and the Tar Heels are broken. Fuente's group made sure that was apparent to everyone watching.
On a day when the offensive production was fair by recent standards, the Hokies still managed to look convincing in all three phases of the game. Two defensive touchdowns, a punt return touchdown and a blocked punt work wonders on the memory. But similar to two weeks ago in Chestnut Hill, the game never felt in doubt. Sure, the offense sputtered once again, but the defensive dominance tempered those concerns and bought time for the offense to kick into gear. Fans are used to that at this point in the season.
What I've found most fascinating about this season is how elementary the wins have felt since the opener against WVU. Outside of Clemson and West Virginia, the opposition has been rather languid, but we've seen strong Tech teams in previous years look listless in shocking defeats. This Tech team — with all of its youth and inexperience — has avoided playing down to their competition all year long.
Part of it is confidence, but there appears to be a developing cultural shift that is growing stronger with each passing week. Virginia Tech is getting back to being the bully in the neighborhood and they appear to be relishing that role. With a plummeting Duke team rolling into town in five days time, the Hokies will need to bring the same focus and intensity that carried them through their win over UNC. Strengthen the bully status once more, and then turn the attention to Miami to remind everyone who is back.