Virginia Tech 30,
North Carolina 3
When Virginia Tech joined the ACC before the 2004 season, it was widely assumed the Hokies would struggle against better competition. After all, they were largely mediocre during their last three seasons in the lightly regarded Big East Conference, losing 13 games from 2001 to '03, relegating them to lower-tier bowl games their last two seasons in the league.
But as Virginia Tech closed its second ACC regular season against North Carolina at sold-out Lane Stadium on Saturday night, many of the conference's other athletic directors and university presidents had to wonder why they ever replaced Syracuse with Virginia Tech in their expansion plans.
After winning the ACC in their first season in the league last year, the No. 5 Hokies are now a victory away from defending their title after beating the Tar Heels, 30-3, in front of a crowd of 65,115. Virginia Tech scored 24 consecutive points in the second half to pull away for its 14th victory in 16 ACC games the past two seasons.
"I think we've proved . . . that we deserve to be in this league," tailback Cedric Humes said. "We fit right in."
By beating the Tar Heels, the Hokies won the Coastal Division and advanced to play No. 23 Florida State in Saturday's inaugural ACC championship game at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. The winner of that game will receive the league's automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series, probably an invitation to play in the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl -- which has a payout that could be $17 million.
"I really meant it when I said we were very fortunate to be in the ACC," Hokies Coach Frank Beamer said. "To win it our first year was special. To get to this first championship game is really special."
The Seminoles (7-4, 5-3) dominated the ACC for more than a decade, winning 11 conference championships in the past 13 seasons. Florida State has been just as dominant against Virginia Tech, beating the Hokies 11 times in a row. Virginia Tech (10-1, 7-1) hasn't defeated the Seminoles since a 13-10 victory on Oct. 11, 1975 -- a season before Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden began his 30-year reign at the school.
After a sluggish first half yielded only a 6-3 lead at intermission, Beamer went back to the three staples he used to turn his alma mater into one of the country's top college football programs: stifling defense, stellar special teams and a powerful running game. The Hokies blocked a punt and a field goal attempt, ran for 277 yards and held the Tar Heels to only 60 yards of total offense in the final 30 minutes.
"They beat us up in the second half," North Carolina Coach John Bunting said.
After the Tar Heels took the opening kickoff of the second half, they quickly faced fourth and 18 at their 22. With punter David Wooldridge standing near his goal line, Hokies freshman Victor Harris partially deflected his punt, causing a 23-yarder that was downed at the North Carolina 45. Humes ran the football on Tech's next six plays and scored on a one-yard run, and Brandon Pace's extra point made it 13-3 with 9 minutes 42 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Tar Heels didn't pick up a first down on their next possession, so the Hokies took over at their 40. Beamer went back to his running game, as redshirt freshman Branden Ore ran seven times during the eight-play drive, including a four-yard touchdown run to give the Hokies a 20-3 lead with 4:57 left in the quarter.
Humes ran for a career-high 134 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Ore ran for 104 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts, the second time in as many games that Humes and Ore ran for 100 yards or more in the same game. The Hokies ran 31 times in the second half and threw only two passes.
"Coach said we were going to run the ball in the second half, but I didn't think we'd run that much," Ore said. "But it's hard not to run when it's working that well."
The Hokies sacked Carolina quarterback Matt Baker three times and held the Tar Heels to only 36 rushing yards. Fittingly, after a pass interference penalty moved the Tar Heels to the Tech 2 late in the game, the Hokies responded by shutting them out on four consecutive plays.
After that, the Hokies were left celebrating in their final home game for the second season in a row.
"We've got a one-game season now," tight end Jeff King said.