UNC arrived in Blacksburg on Wednesday afternoon after enjoying a better-late-than-never off day last weekend. Only six teams in the country, and none others in the ACC, had to play 10 straight weeks to open the season, but that type of luck has become common for the Tar Heels. North Carolina closed the 2010 season with 11 straight games after having its bye the week after Labor Day.
Not that the Tar Heels are complaining about sitting last weekend out. After losing three of its last four games, including an embarrassing 13-0 loss at rival N.C. State, UNC needed a break to regroup mentally and get healthy physically.
Quarterback Bryn Renner has been hobbled most of the season with ankle injuries and was knocked out of the N.C. State game with a mild concussion on Nov. 5. The red-shirt sophomore told reporters earlier this week that he's not concerned about the potential for more head-knocking hits against an aggressive Virginia Tech defense.
"I don't worry about that at all," Renner said. "I think the biggest thing you can do (to recover) is practice. Once I got back on the practice field (last) Thursday and then Sunday, it was all of the confidence that I need to play on Thursday."
Coordinator Bud Foster's defense ranks second in the ACC in total defense (302.5 ypg) and leads the league with 3.2 sacks per game, good for fifth nationally.
Renner's statistics have been solid in his first season as UNC's starting quarterback – 177-of-248 passing, 2,271 yards, 19 TD, 11 INT – but his critics point to a growing number of bad decisions at inopportune times that have proven detrimental for North Carolina.
Renner took a 19-yard sack on UNC's opening possession against the Wolfpack that helped set up the game's lone touchdown and then threw an interception at the goal line on the Tar Heels' first series of the second half.
"He doesn't have to win the game," UNC head coach Everett Withers said on Wednesday. "He has to be able to manage the game for us and be able to make the right decisions. I think that's going to always be an ongoing process any time you're dealing with a young quarterback.
"I've been pleased with Bryn. Bryn's a tough, hard-nosed competitor. I think it's a matter of him relaxing and playing and having fun. I want him to enjoy playing this ballgame, every ballgame, because I think he is talented. Once he starts enjoying the game and understanding that he doesn't have to win the game by himself, he's going to be a fabulous quarterback."
Renner has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including freshman running back Giovani Bernard (1,012 rushing yards, 11 TD) and senior wide receiver Dwight Jones (913 receiving yards, 8 TD).
Virginia Tech's growing pains with first-year quarterback Logan Thomas haven't been quite as severe. The 6-foot-6, 254-pound red-shirt sophomore has completed 161 of his 266 passes for 2,143 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's also rushed for 355 yards and eight touchdowns on 105 carries and has helped the Hokies churn out 432.5 yards of offense per game (3rd ACC).
"When our quarterback is playing well, I think it allows us to be a good running team and be a good throwing football team," Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. "That's what we've always strived for is to be able to do both. I think that's what the really good teams do. They can run it, and they can throw it. Because there are times you've got to run it, and there are times you've got to throw it. So I think we're getting closer to that."
It helps that Thomas has the Football Bowl Subdivision's leading rusher lining up behind him. Junior tailback David Wilson has rolled up 1,360 yards and has 24 20-plus-yard plays in 2011.
Run defense will be critical for both teams. Virginia Tech is allowing just 102.0 rushing yards per game (13th nationally), while North Carolina is only giving up 108.3 yards per game (18th).
The Tar Heels must win on Thursday if they have any hopes of posting the first nine-win season at North Carolina since 1997. A loss would knock UNC further down the bowl pecking order and would likely solidify a trip to Shreveport, La. for the Independence Bowl or Washington, D.C. for the Military Bowl.
"Big stage or not, everyone is going to step their game up," UNC junior defensive back Pete Mangum said.
Weather forecasts call for a kickoff temperature of 36 degrees with an 11 mph wind, which will combine for a wind chill of 26 degrees.
North Carolina is 5-3 all-time in Thursday night primetime games on ESPN.