When he watched the film this week, a year after the carnage, Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler hardly recognized the team wearing maroon and white on the screen. The record amount of rushing yards allowed, the parade of missed tackles and the kickoff returned for a touchdown — all because of mistakes by significant contributors — felt more like a bad dream.
But while the details may have faded from the Hokies’ 2012 loss to North Carolina, one that Coach Frank Beamer described this week as “a hammer job,” the memory remains.
“You try to let things like that go, but I’d be lying if I said that it’s not in my head, how they beat us last year,” Hokies senior cornerback Antone Exum said this week.
On Saturday, Virginia Tech will face North Carolina (1-3) for the first time since that 48-34 defeat last October, and it’s a chance to avenge one of the low points to a 2012 campaign that would become the worst Beamer has experienced in 20 years.
The speed and tempo of North Carolina Coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense caught the Hokies off guard. As a result, running back Giovani Bernard rushed for more yards (262) than any player ever had against Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels also returned a kickoff for a touchdown, the first time the Hokies had allowed that to happen in 237 games.
It was a humbling reminder of where these Hokies players came from. Just two players on Virginia Tech’s defense this year were considered among the nation’s top 250 recruits when they arrived in Blacksburg, Va., a stigma they haven’t forgotten. Several, like Tyler and defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins — the reigning ACC defensive lineman of the week — received scholarship offers from only one Bowl Championship Series program during the recruiting process.
Defensive tackle Luther Maddy, a two-star prospect from Delray Beach, Fla., who was headed to Western Michigan before the Hokies offered him a scholarship the night before National Signing Day, said the Hokies “feel disrespected on the field and we play like that.”
“Just watching other defenses, I don’t think people buy into what their coaches say as much as we do,” said Tyler, an All-Met from Oakton High who began his college career as a walk-on. “Maybe we weren’t the flashiest guys coming out of high school, but we can all still play and we feel we’re just as good as those guys. We want to show the world that we’re just as capable.”
But this season, the Hokies are starting to get their due after another dominating performance last week at Georgia Tech left them with a 4-1 record despite an offense that is, statistically, one of the worst in the country.
Virginia Tech currently ranks in the top five nationally in total defense, passing defense, sacks, tackles for a loss and turnovers caused, the main reason it has won three games by a touchdown or less this year. The defense could be even more stout going forward.
Exum was expected to make his season debut after eight months of rehab following major offseason knee surgery, but the team announced Friday afternoon that he won’t dress for the game. Freshman Brandon Facyson will start at cornerback against the Tar Heels. He’s tied for the national lead with four interceptions through five games. Exum was a second-team all-ACC selection a year ago when he led the ACC with 16 pass breakups.
Foster believes this defense’s biggest asset, other than depth in the secondary (even without Exum) and along the defensive line, may be the growth and leadership that has come from experiences like last year’s North Carolina debacle.
Beamer is hopeful the memories haven’t faded in the midst of this year’s success.
“We learned that last year,” he said. “When you think things are about right, that’s when they’re ready to go wrong.”