Virginia Tech's national championship hopes came crashing down on Sept. 11. Super conference programs can handle an early blemish on their resume – see the Hokies' season-opening loss to No. 4 Boise State – but a pair of losses makes it all but impossible to book a reservation for the BCS title game. Include a home loss to a FCS opponent, as Virginia Tech served up against James Madison in Week 2, and a return to the Orange Bowl immediately became the best-case scenario for Frank Beamer's squad in Blacksburg. Eleven other teams in the ACC would jump at that opportunity, but there's no denying that turn of events proved to be a letdown for the conference's best team since expansion.
But instead of falling apart, Virginia Tech (7-2, 5-0 ACC) rebounded and has now won seven straight to build a commanding two-game lead in the Coastal Division and creep back into the national rankings at No. 17. The Hokies rallied from an early 14-0 deficit against Georgia Tech on Nov. 4 to become the odds-on favorite in the Coastal Division, but still must navigate through difficult waters in both Chapel Hill and Miami over the next two weeks.
As usual, the Hokies have leaned heavily on Bud Foster's defense in '10. Despite returning only four starters, Foster's unit ranks 46th nationally in total defense (346.3 ypg) and 28th in scoring defense (20.1 ppg). Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring is having one of his better seasons in Blacksburg as his offense ranks 38th in total offense (414.7 ypg) and 16th in scoring offense (36.0 ppg).
"I have figured out in this league that you better take care of your own business, you know it's week to week and we better get ready to go play a great football game against North Carolina, that's really what it's going to take." – Beamer on the Coastal Division race
"You're going to see great special teams and they have a lot of good special athletes they use. This is complete as a football team can be from a special teams standpoint." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
Matchups to Watch
Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor vs. North Carolina's T.J. Yates
The ACC's two most efficient quarterbacks will square off at Kenan Stadium on Saturday in Taylor and Yates.
Taylor ranks eighth nationally in passing efficiency (163.3) in completing 121 of his 191 passing attempts for 1,739 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. What makes those numbers even more impressive is that the senior quarterback has long been thought to be more dangerous with his feet, as evidenced by his 64.9 rushing yards per game.
Taylor's 2,121 career rushing yards sits at the top of the Virginia Tech record books for quarterbacks, and he also owns the total offense mark with 8,134 yards. He needs one rushing touchdown, one 100-yard rushing game and roughly 400 passing yards to own those respective records as well.
"I think I just turned into a better overall quarterback," Tyrod told reporters on Tuesday. "I believe I always had the arm strength to throw any pass. With my knowledge of the game, I think it came together completely."
Yates, on the other hand, needs only 485 yards to break Darian Durant's all-time passing record and nine completions to set the UNC career record in that category. The fifth-year senior ranks 20th nationally in passing efficiency (153.4) in completing 180 of his 271 passes for 2,312 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Marietta, Ga. native's school-record 439 yards against Florida State last Saturday makes him the only Tar Heel with two 400-yard passing games in school history.
It would appear that Yates would encounter a tougher task on Saturday against a Virginia Tech pass defense that ranks 22nd in yards allowed (187.0) and eighth in pass efficiency defense (103.2), but while North Carolina's secondary has been devastated by injury and suspension, leading to eight different starters throughout the season, the Tar Heels still somehow rank 35th in pass defense (197.9) and 39th in pass efficiency defense (120.7).
Virginia Tech's Rushing Attack vs. North Carolina's Run Defense
The Hokies announced on Tuesday that sophomore tailback David Wilson [462 yards, 4 TD] had been diagnosed with mononucleosis and would not play against North Carolina. That would appear to be a devastating blow, but it's difficult to feel sorry for running backs coach Billy Hite with All-ACC performers Darren Evans (515 yards, 9 TD) and Ryan Williams (179 yards, 5 TD) joining Taylor (584 yards, 3 TD) in the stable.
That group – which rotated each series in the first half against Georgia Tech – stands 18th nationally and second in the ACC in rushing offense (212.9 ypg). The Hokies have rushed for over 150 yards in seven of their nine ball games and are averaging 239 rushing yards per game over the last five weeks.
North Carolina counters with the nation's No. 53 run defense in allowing 145.9 yards per game on the ground. Since giving up 534 yards in the early-season losses to LSU and Georgia Tech, UNC have held four of its last seven opponents to under 100 yards. Since Sept. 18, North Carolina's opponents are averaging 111.3 rushing yards per game with Miami's 225 yards serving as the outlier.
"You look at them defensively, the linebackers as a group are just unbelievable, then the front four," Beamer said. "I think it's probably the best defense we've played up until right now so this is a real challenge this week."
To look at those statistics from a different perspective, consider that North Carolina is holding opponents to 92.3 rushing yards per game in its six wins this season, while opponents are averaging 253 rushing yards in UNC's three losses.