CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Virginia Tech is playing to remember its past. No. 12 North Carolina is playing to define its future.
Saturday’s matchup at Lane Stadium will be Frank Beamer’s 180th and final home game. The 69-year-old, who has born in Mount Airy, N.C., has led Virginia Tech to four ACC championships and six Coastal Division titles since joining the league in 2004. The Hokies (5-5, 3-3 ACC) would like nothing more than to trip up UNC (9-1, 6-0 ACC) in its attempt to secure its first-ever division title and send Beamer out with one last home victory.
Beamer and his Virginia Tech program has long been an obstacle for UNC. The Hokies are 9-2 against the Tar Heels in ACC games, including wins in four of the last five meetings.
The Coastal Division landscape has been changing of late, due to Virginia Tech’s slide into mediocrity (23-22 vs FBS opponents since 2012) and the inability of other programs to ascend to the top of the division and remain there. Larry Fedora has his UNC program positioned not only to win the Coastal in 2015, but also to be the frontrunners in 2016. First things first, though.
A UNC win in either of its final two games, or a Pitt loss in either of its two final games, wraps up the Coastal Division.
“We understand that we are 9-1 and we can clinch the Coastal, so I think we’re going to be as fired up as them,” UNC senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “We’re not worried about it being Frank Beamer’s last game and how fired up they’re going to be. We understand what we have on the line and how big our stakes are for this game.”
The Tar Heels have played their way into the College Football Playoff discussion with steady improvement since the season-opening loss to South Carolina. Even with that four-point defeat included, UNC’s average margin of victory against Power 5 conference opponents this season in 20.8 points.
Balance has been the determining factor in UNC’s nine-game winning streak. The Tar Heels rank ninth nationally in scoring offense (42.0 ppg) and 20th in scoring defense (18.8 ppg). That statistical dominance prompted comparisons to the defending national champions, a team that routed Virginia Tech, 42-24, at Lane Stadium in this season’s opener.
“We're getting ready to play a team that's in the same grouping as Ohio State,” Beamer said. “Extremely talented, very well-coached. Look as hard as you can, you can't find a weakness. They do everything extremely well. I’m very impressed with this football team.”
Due in part to injuries at quarterback – Michael Brewer (68-of-115 passing, 849 yards, 8 TD, 3 INT) sat out five games with a broken collarbone – Virginia Tech has relied on its defense to move within a game of bowl eligibility for the 23rd consecutive season. The Hokies rank 22nd in total defense (336.7 ypg) and 48th in scoring defense (24.0 ppg).
Given defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s aggressive approach, not to mention an emotionally charged stadium, a quick start is pivotal for the Tar Heels. Virginia Tech jumped out to 14-0 and 24-3 leads over UNC in ’13 and ’14, respectively, and coasted to double-digit victories.
UNC has been much improved in that statistical category this season, outscoring its opponents 84-37 in the first quarter and 227-85 in the first half.
“It's always important to do that, but even more so against Virginia Tech, which is very tough, because Bud Foster's defense is always very well-prepared,” Fedora said. They're going to play extremely hard. They're going to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback.”
Virginia Tech’s defense will have its hands full with a UNC offense that averages 214.6 rushing yards and 280.4 passing yards per game, one of only 10 schools in the country to average more than 200 yards on the ground and 250 yards through the air. Quarterback Marquise Williams, who earned his first career start in Blacksburg in 2013, ranks fourth nationally in yards per play (8.81) and 25th in total offense (288.1 ypg).
A win would move UNC to 7-0 in league for the first time in school history, and more importantly, secure an invite to the ACC Championship Game against No. 1 Clemson in Charlotte on Dec. 5.