52 minutes of frustration bookended by 8 minutes of excitement. That was Virginia Tech's Saturday night.
Against a 1-3 North Carolina team that has been a shell of its former self in recent years, the Hokies struggled all evening long to assert themselves as the alpha. The Tech offense sputtered drive-after-drive, while the Carolina offense steadily gained momentum before consistently pushing the ball deep into Virginia Tech territory.
The Hokies' saving grace was ultimately the same unit that struggled to contain a surprisingly pesky Tar Heel offense. Gashed on the ground by tailback Michael Carter and carved up through the air by half the population of North Carolina, the Hokies defense clamped down when it mattered most. The Heels had 9 drives end inside the Virginia Tech 26-yard line, coming away with only 1 touchdown and 4 field goals. UNC went 5-7 in the red zone, including a game altering Carter fumble into the Tech endzone with 6:13 to play. Leading 19-14 and looking to put the game away, the ball was punched free from Carter's grip, flying into the air before being corralled by Tech DB Jovonn Quillen on the Hokies' 2-yard line.
From there, an underperforming Hokies offense improbably marched 98 yards on 18 plays to score a game winning touchdown in the waning seconds and escape Chapel Hill with a victory.
It wasn't one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences for Tech fans — at least not until the final minutes. The offense had the feel of a freshly neutered pup, visibly oozing confusion, frustration and shame. Aside from a Quincy Patterson cameo, a leaping Eric Kumah grab and a Sean Savoy stiff arm, there was little electricity through the middle of the game. Oh, and each of those plays happened on the same 3rd Quarter scoring drive. The play calling felt stale, as few plays took the Carolina defense by surprise. Damon Hazelton was kept in check until Tech's final drive, though not for a lack of trying by Ryan Willis. The Tech signal caller regularly forced the ball in Hazelton's direction, often trying to make something out of nothing despite obvious warning signs.
Yet somehow the Hokies were able to cobble together an 18-play drive from their own doorstep with the game on the line. It was unbelievable, and I mean that in a completely literal and un-hyperbolic way.
On 2nd and 9 from the VT 3-yard line, Willis (finally) connected with Hazleton along the sideline for a 29-yard gain and some much needed breathing room. On a critical 4th and 9 at the Carolina 40, Willis successfully evaded the Tar Heel pass rush, found daylight and moved the sticks with a ballsy 12-yard run. And after another Willis conversion to the UNC 1-yard line, the Hokies offense was able to exorcise their demons from a week earlier. On 1st and Goal, Willis flipped a pass to a streaking Dalton Keene, who turned the corner and sauntered into the endzone for a go-ahead touchdown.
Reflecting on his offense's game winning scoring drive, Justin Fuente noted:
"Well, I think it's just a great example of just sticking with it. I think they were disappointed they weren't playing any better, but they weren't frustrated and to me there's a big difference. They just kept plugging away, and to find a way, we felt like we had some things we could do, we just weren't doing them very well."
The transfer from Kansas threw two picks on the night, the second of which was a brutal overthrow of an open Chris Cunningham deep in North Carolina territory. He regularly stared down Hazelton, his favorite target, despite little chance of success. And he made some questionable decisions with the football, looking more like the odd and aloof gunslinger that his teammates have alluded to in the past. It wasn't Willis' brightest day in orange and maroon, but you've got to give the guy credit: When it mattered most, he figured out a way to keep his team in it and ultimately come away victorious.
Defensively, the Hokies continued to look like the least fearsome Lunch Pail D Blacksburg has seen in decades. The Heels utilized a series of chunk plays to put themselves into scoring position, including rushes of 49 and 40 yards and completions of 80 and 43 yards. Michael Carter ran for a career high 165 yards on 18 carries, leading a Carolina run game whose 235 yards easily bested Tech's previous opponents.
The Hokies struggled to beat a North Carolina team led down the stretch by their third string quarterback. Nathan Elliott, who Head Coach Larry Fedora praised postgame for his team-first attitude, easily looked like the least talented signal caller Tech has faced this season. That didn't stop him from going 11-15 for 147 yards and a touchdown.
It was a truly frustrating game to watch. Tech was repeatedly carved up by the Heels, only to tighten up with their backs against the wall. Despite surrendering 522 yards and 7.15 yards per play — by far the Heels' best performance of the season — the Hokies defense limited Carolina to just 19 points.
Through six games, Tech sports the #17 red zone defense in the country, allowing a score (touchdown or field goal) on 72.73% of chances. Their 40.91% touchdown conversion percentage is good enough for 8th, nationally. So while Tech continues to rank historically low in Total Defense (#95), they're figuring out ways to keep themselves in the game.
It's an interesting set of stats, when viewed through the prism of a young defensive unit. Their lack of experience and time playing together has led to a mind numbing number of breakdowns and big plays. But many of those big plays have been chased down by guys like Khalil Ladler, Reggie Floyd and Bryce Watts. And those same drives, as well as the more conventional variety, have been stymied in the red zone. It shows that, despite the fact that they're still finding their sea legs, this defense has a ton of pride. They may be making mistakes, but they're unwilling to completely fold. This may not be a traditionally fearsome Lunch Pail Defense, but they shown that they possess the important character traits of one.
The fanbase has been regularly reminded over the past week that most level headed Hokies tempered their expectations coming into this season. Outside of the season's first two weeks, there has been little evidence to suggest otherwise. Yet here Tech stands, 3-0 in the ACC and atop the Coastal Division. 3-0 despite zero conference games in Lane Stadium. From here, the level of difficulty ratchets up a few notches, eased only by the comforting realization that 4 out of 5 remaining games are at home.
For the second straight week, I'm struggling to determine what the Hokies' performance means for this team moving forward. Traditionally, wins like these are the type that inspire. The way in which the defense forced a turnover in their own end zone, followed by the offense's methodical game winning drive, is typically enough to overshadow an otherwise flat performance. But I've seen too much Hokie football this season to know that it was unlikely to be some defining moment.
After Tech's much needed bye week, the defense will still be young, inexperienced, and prone to giving up big plays. But they're a gritty, athletic group, with a few dudes unafraid to lay the boom when the moment presents itself. Just ask Cade Fortin. The offense is talented but lacking the ever important ruthlessness that often separates the champions from the also-rans.
Could that change as the season goes on? Maybe. Or maybe this team continues to embrace who they are and figures out ways to take care of business despite the adversity they'll surely face. They figured it out in Chapel Hill. No reason why they can't do it again at home.