Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech squad finds itself once again in the familiar position of playing for a spot in the ACC Championship game. The Hokies (9-1, 5-1 ACC) have won three of the last five conference crowns and can secure a title game appearance against Clemson with two more victories or a victory and a Virginia loss. It's a safe bet to write Virginia Tech into that championship contest, especially considering that the Hokies are a staggering 23-2 in ACC games in November. Despite only being in the league since 2004, Virginia Tech is just the third team in ACC history to win five or more regular season games eight years in a row.
The Hokies' success in 2011 is due to a balanced approach. Virginia Tech ranks in the top-four of 13 statistical categories in the ACC, including No. 2 on total defense (302.5 ypg) and No. 3 in total offense (432.5 ypg). Quarterback Logan Thomas has been effective in filling Tyrod Taylor's shoes, completing 161 of his 266 passes for 2,143 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The 6-foot-6, 254-pound red-shirt sophomore has also rushed for 355 yards and eight touchdowns on 105 carries.
"When you get to November, you want to be playing for something. You want to be playing for championships. And these guys have put us in that position." – Beamer
"We're in the driver's seat. We control our own destiny." – VT wide receiver Danny Coale
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Bryn Renner vs. VT's Pass Rush
UNC head coach Everett Withers tabbed his offensive line as a strength during the preseason, but Renner's body may have a counter-argument and ample evidence to prove that statement false. After suffering a pair of ankle injuries earlier in the season – the coaching staff didn't think Renner was capable of throwing a 40-yard Hail Mary on the final play against Miami – the red-shirt sophomore finally suffered his first concussion against N.C. State on Nov. 5.
While most observers believed NCSU linebacker Audie Cole's knockdown caused Renner's mild concussion, the UNC signal caller told reporters on Monday that he didn't think one hit was the culprit.
"I think it was a combination of plays," Renner said. "There were two or three that we looked at that. It could have been either one."
When asked if UNC would take any special precautions with Renner on Thursday night, Withers replied, "Hopefully we protect him better."
North Carolina's offensive line allowed just one sack in the first three contests of the season, but has given up 22 sacks in the seven games since. UNC ranks 84th nationally in sacks allowed (2.3 per game) and has had a difficult time recognizing blitzes up front..
That's music to Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's ears. His Hokies lead the ACC with 3.2 sacks per game (5th nationally) and have tallied 97 quarterback hits – almost 10 per game – with their aggressive style of play.
Defensive ends J.R. Collins (6 sacks, 8 TFL, 21 QBH) and James Gayle (5 sacks, 8 TFL, 11 QBH) join linebacker Bruce Taylor (5 sacks, 7 TFL, 16 QBH) in spearheading the assault on opposing quarterbacks.
VT's David Wilson vs. UNC's Run Defense
Virginia Tech has rolled out numerous high-quality running backs in recent years – Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, to name a few – but junior David Wilson could possibly be the best of the bunch.
Wilson leads the FBS with 1,360 yards on the season and is on track to top Williams' school record of 1,655 yards set in '09. The Danville, N.C. product played a critical role in Virginia Tech outrushing Georgia Tech last Thursday, 267-243, churning out a career-high 175 yards on 23 carries.
"We just came in saying that we were going to run the ball," Wilson told reporters following the game. "That's how we were going to win the game. The coaches were saying that, and as a running back, that's what I want to hear."
Wilson, who has rushed for seven touchdowns in '11, was recently named a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award but has been unable to gain much traction in the Heisman Trophy race for whatever reason.
What makes Wilson so dangerous is his big-play ability. Not only is he averaging 8.3 yards-per-touch for his career, but he has delivered 24 20-plus yard plays in 2011, including 40 runs over 10 yards and 16 runs over 20 yards. Virginia Tech's stat-tracker has Wilson with 116 broken tackles and 821 yards after contact this season.
"Here's a guy with [nine] 100-yard rushing games, seven straight," Withers said. "He's a talented running back."
North Carolina has been effective in defending the run (108.3 ypg, 18th nationally) and shut down Miami's Lamar Miller and Clemson's Andre Ellington, but Wake Forest and N.C. State combined for 247 rushing yards and three touchdowns on a 3.7 yards-per-carry average in UNC's last two games.