CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster insisted this week that his unit’s issues were mostly cosmetic, that the Hokies’ loss to Cincinnati last weekend was the result of five bad plays. But Saturday’s game against North Carolina offered definitive proof that Virginia Tech’s problems run much deeper.
On a day when the Hokies set records in all the wrong departments, they simply couldn’t keep up with North Carolina in a 48-34 loss. The defeat was Virginia Tech’s third in four games and means the Hokies (3-3, 1-1 ACC) are off to their worst start through six games since 1992, the year before Coach Frank Beamer’s 19-year streak of bowl appearances began.
But the real shock is that a defense billed as one of the ACC’s best during the preseason was gouged yet again. For the third time this year, Virginia Tech allowed an opponent to gain more than 490 yards. Saturday will also go down as the most points scored against the Hokies since they joined the ACC in 2004.
North Carolina finished the afternoon with 533 yards, doing much of its damage on the ground. The Tar Heels gained 339 rushing yards, the most Virginia Tech has ever given up against an opponent that doesn’t run some form of the option since Beamer took over the program in 1987. Tar Heels running back Gio Bernard had a career-high 262 yards on 22 carries, the most the Hokies have ever allowed to one player.
Like last week’s loss to Cincinnati, Foster felt he had the right strategy to slow down the Tar Heels. But the defense was exposed when Bernard and company got into open space because of tackling Foster described as “pitiful.
“Guys are looking around rather than trying to make a play,” he added.
“A lot of us are let down. I feel like it’s probably the worst [thing] that could have happened, in the way it happened,” defensive end James Gayle said. “It’s very frustrating. I came to Virginia Tech because we know how to play great defense. I feel like today we let the team down.”
Early on, though, Virginia Tech couldn’t have asked for a better start. The defense forced three-and-outs on North Carolina’s first three drives of the game and quarterback Logan Thomas staked the Hokies to an early 7-0 lead when he scored on a 13-yard touchdown run.
But in a sign of what was to come, North Carolina wide receiver Sean Tapley took the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown Virginia Tech had allowed on a kickoff return since Nov. 13, 1993. At 237 games, it was the longest active streak in the country.
Soon thereafter, the Hokies’ defense wilted. After initial success, Virginia Tech allowed five touchdowns and a field goal on North Carolina’s next seven drives, and they came in a variety of ways.
First, North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner scored on a four-yard touchdown run that was set up by an offside penalty on defensive end J.R. Collins when the Tar Heels were lining up to attempt a field goal.
More misfortune struck the next time North Carolina had the ball. With the Tar Heels facing fourth and one, Bernard broke through the line of scrimmage untouched en route to a 62-yard touchdown run that gave North Carolina a 21-14 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
Before halftime, the Tar Heels also embarked on a 10-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, and yet Virginia Tech only trailed, 28-20, heading into the second half.
But that would be a short-lived margin. On the Hokies’ first possession of the third quarter, running back Michael Holmes had the ball ripped away from him by North Carolina linebacker Travis Hughes. Four plays later, the Tar Heels converted the turnover into a touchdown when Renner found Tapley on a 19-yard reception.
It was a sequence Beamer lamented after the game, especially because his offense actually had a productive game. Thomas had his best performance of the year, connecting on touchdown throws of 49 and 66 yards. He finished 26 of 49 for a career-high 354 yards, three total touchdowns and one interception.
Wide receiver Corey Fuller had five catches for a career-high 143 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt freshman Demetri Knowles added six catches for 83 yards and also had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second half. But Virginia Tech mustered just 40 yards on the ground, the fewest it has gained since a season-opening loss to East Carolina in 2007.
“A shootout is a shootout and you’ve got to keep pace,” Thomas said. “We had a couple drives in the second half where we didn’t get any points, so it didn’t make it any easier.”
After the game, a sullen Beamer took stock of his team’s lackluster record, noting the Hokies are still in the running to win the ACC’s Coastal Division this year. Foster said trust might now be an issue with a defense that suddenly lacks confidence. He hoped that an emphasis on fundamentals would solve the issue.
But neither could escape the unfamiliar reality Virginia Tech now faces after another demoralizing loss.
“We’ve got the meat of our schedule ahead of us,” Foster said. “We’ve got to play well just to make a bowl game.”