CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The prevailing wind of dramatic finishes that has carried North Carolina in recent weeks was upended on Saturday by Virginia Tech amidst the fury of Hurricane Matthew. The aftermath, as is often the case, offers a different perspective at the tenuous road ahead.
The Tar Heels had done the improbable on consecutive Saturdays, rallying first from a 13-point fourth-quarter against Pittsburgh with a touchdown and two seconds to spare. UNC utilized its full allotment of clock ticks one week later, as Nick Weiler booted a career-long 54-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
While Weiler was streaking across the field at Doak Campbell Stadium tomahawk chopping the crowd, Virginia Tech was basking in its bye week, preparing for arguably the most important game on its schedule against the defending Coastal Division champions.
That juxtaposition played out at Kenan Stadium as Virginia Tech was emphatic in its dominance, locking down Larry Fedora’s offense in an unprecedented manner. UNC’s three points and 131 total yards of offense are the fewest by a Fedora-coached team.
Virginia Tech scored 20 points off four UNC turnovers and scored another touchdown not long after Tom Sheldon bobbled a punt snap and was tackled at his own four-yard line. Gene Chizik’s defense did its part early, but the short fields and long possessions proved too much to overcome.
Adding to miscues, or perhaps subtly fueling them, was a noticeable difference in intensity between the divisional opponents.
“We didn’t have the energy that we needed to have to play at this level,” Fedora told reporters in his postgame press conference.
Matthew’s wind and rain effectively eliminated UNC’s home field advantage, although that was not an excuse the Tar Heels were peddling after the squall.
“We’ve got to supply the energy ourselves,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “There’s no excuse. This was a big Coastal game for us. We can’t look into the stands and try to find our energy. It’s got to come from the locker room. It’s got to come from me. It’s got to come from our leaders.”
The Tar Heels also dismissed the notion postgame that their last-second come-from-behind victories over Pittsburgh and Florida State exacted an emotional toll that finally came due.
“No, if anything, [our energy level] would be higher,” defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “We could lost those two games easily, so I think winning those two games should have helped us.”
The positivity that has saturated the Kenan Football Center in recent weeks was absent shortly after 7pm on Saturday as the magnitude of this loss sunk in. As big of a win as the one in Tallahassee may have been, it was not enough to offset a divisional loss to a Coastal contender. Even if the Tar Heels win out, they need the Hokies to lose twice due to the tiebreaker.
“We definitely lose control,” tailback T.J. Logan said. “You never want to be there, but all we can do is just try to win games now. Every game should be our Super Bowl when we step out on the field. That’s how I feel like we’re going to approach it from now on.”
Only two teams have gone undefeated through the Coastal Division – Virginia Tech in 2010 and UNC in 2015 – while three of the last four division champions have finished 6-2 or 5-3. The race to the ACC Championship Game is far from over, although the Hokies’ favorable schedule likely minimizes UNC’s margin of error.
“We don’t control that,” Jones said. “We can just continue to try to win games and go with the flow. Of course we want to be in Orlando when the ACC Championship is played on Dec. 3, but if we don’t, then we know why. It was because of today.”
Linebacker Andre Smith admitted he was going to let this loss stew for a bit, into the night and through corrections on Sunday afternoon, before turning his attention to the Hurricanes that await in South Florida.
“We’re going to learn a lot from this game,” Smith said. “We’re going to bounce back. We’re very motivated and we’ll go down and whoop Miami.”