The Hokies enter Saturday's Coastal Division showdown with a 2-1 (1-0 ACC) record, posting victories over Furman and Georgia Tech after losing their season opener to East Carolina in Charlotte. Head coach Frank Beamer is 169-86-2 in 22 years in Blacksburg, and owns a 6-1 record over Butch Davis-coached teams.
Virginia Tech is working through some much-publicized kinks in its armor, as the quarterback position has served as a collegiate soap opera with Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon. It doesn't help that Beamer was already facing the difficult task of replacing 13 players from the 2007 squad that were either drafted or signed free agent contracts to play professionally.
But one thing is clear – "Beamer Ball" is alive and well at Virginia Tech, as John Graves has blocked a kick in each of the Hokies' first three games. With a solid defense and an evolving ground game, the defending ACC Champions may be down, but they are still the pride of the division until proven otherwise.
"I think they showed their real team up at Rutgers. Boy, that was impressive. Just the whole outfit there. This is the best football team we've played so far." – Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer
"Sean Glennon is a good, good quarterback. He's been a great quarterback for us. He's been a great team player for us. I feel for him. I really feel for him." – Beamer said following the decision to start Tyrod Taylor
"You'd better be one disciplined football team to slow him down. He's matured from last year, he looks real good back there, and we definitely have to read our keys and play good defensive football." – UNC cornerback Kendric Burney on Taylor
"You're never as good as you think you are or as bad as you think you are. Whatever it took to beat Rutgers, it will not be good enough to beat Virginia Tech." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
Heading into the season opener against East Carolina, Beamer shocked the ACC region by announcing that sophomore sensation Tyrod Taylor would red-shirt the 2008 campaign, and senior Sean Glennon would once again serve as the lone option at quarterback.
That decision lasted approximately a week.
Three days after the 27-22 loss to the Pirates, Beamer removed the red-shirt from the shifty playmaker. In his first action against Furman, Taylor rushed for 112 yards, prompting the coaching staff to give him the full reins in the ACC opener against Georgia Tech. That move proved successful, as the sophomore completed nine of his 14 passes for 48 yards while also picking up 74 yards and a touchdown on 15 rushing attempts.
While Beamer has not declared Taylor as his starter for the remainder of the season, he was quick to praise the Virginia native on Monday.
"Tyrod just fits where we are as a football team right now," Beamer said. "As I've said several times, I'm all about team, how many wins you can get. I think you've just got to put those pieces together, and Tyrod right now is one of those pieces."
Taylor's ability to run and pass create a variety of problems for the Tar Heels, with Davis even comparing the young man to a former Virginia Tech standout – Michael Vick.
"He's got a live arm, he can throw the ball, 40, 50, 60 yards, but he can also pull the ball down, he can scramble, he can run by design,'' Davis said. "The schemes that they're running are going to give them the opportunity to have the ball in his hands."
There is no debating Taylor's success – after all, he is 6-0 as a starter – but for Virginia Tech to legitimately challenge for the ACC Championship this season, he will have to show that he can throw the ball with accuracy and confidence in dire situations. His feet led the Hokies to 199 rushing yards and a victory against the Yellow Jackets, but that won't be enough week in and week out – or will it?
Matchups to Watch
Virginia Tech's Special Teams vs. UNC's Special Teams
The Hokies have made a living on special teams during Frank Beamer's tenure, scoring 41 touchdowns – 15 on blocked punts, 16 on punt returns, five on kickoff returns, four on blocked field goals and one on a fumble recovery. In addition to those scores, Virginia Tech has blocked 120 kicks in the past 257 games.
As evidenced by Graves' three blocked kicks this season, "Beamer Ball" is still thriving in Blacksburg. In last Saturday's victory over Georgia Tech, Dustin Keys delivered the deciding points with a 21-yard field goal and then in the final minute, Brent Bowden's 25-yard boot pinned the Yellow Jackets inside their own five-yard line, effectively ending the ball game.
But North Carolina counters with one of the conference's top punters in Terrence Brown (41.0 yard per kick, four downed inside the 20), and red-shirt freshman Jay Wooten showed some potential in drilling three field goals last Thursday in the win at Rutgers.
And then there's Brandon Tate.
The Burlington, N.C. senior leads the nation in all-purpose yards (308 per game), and ranks second in punt returns (36.5 ypr) and fifth in kickoff returns (38.0 ypr). Every time Tate touches the ball, he poses a threat to score.
"He's having a great year," Beamer said. "When you average 29 yards a catch … then you watch him return kicks, this guy is a great football player. The way he starts may not be the way he ends up. He can change direction, he can zig-zag. He can do it. He's legit all the way."
The Hokies first loss of the season ended ironically, with East Carolina blocking a punt for the winning score. With Tate returning kicks for the Tar Heels on Saturday, special teams could be problematic for Virginia Tech once again.
UNC's Passing Defense vs. Virginia Tech's Passing Offense
There is no question that the Hokies will do everything in their power to run the ball effectively against North Carolina. It worked against a stout Georgia Tech defense last weekend, and the Virginia Tech coaching staff is hoping its rushing attack continues to be enough on Saturday.
So you may be wondering why this matchup key focuses on the passing game, but it's for good reason – the Tar Heels must make the Hokies' offense one dimensional in order to pull out a victory against the defending ACC Champions.
Defensive coordinator Everett Withers told ESPN on Monday that the key to this game was to get Tyrod Taylor throwing the football. As mentioned above, the sophomore's red-shirt was pulled two weeks ago to compensate for young wide receivers and for an offensive line – despite four returning starters – that has struggled in the early going with pass protection.
Ike Whitaker was one of the few veterans in the Hokies' receiving corps, and even he is falling down the depth chart, as freshman Jarrett Boykin has moved into his position. Standout cornerback Macho Harris has also moved to the offensive side of the ball to provide some weapons at wideout.
"I think [Harris] needs to play more series, not just plays," Beamer said. "I think it gets too hard to call it just plays. He needs to be able to play a series, a couple series, three series, four series, whatever. We're going to try to have a good plan for that."
The Hokies' passing offense ranks 116th out of 119 Division I-A teams, averaging a a mere 85 yards per game. With a full game of playing experience under Taylor's belt this season, look for offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring to add some more wrinkles into the passing attack in an attempt to loosen up a Tar Heel run defense.
If Taylor is able to make some plays through the air early, Virginia Tech's offensive line will be able to open more holes for Taylor and the running backs, thus presenting a myriad of problems for North Carolina's defensive efforts.
* Virginia Tech has won all four meetings against North Carolina as members of the ACC, including a 17-10 win at home last year and a 35-10 win in Chapel Hill in 2006. The Hokies beat the Tar Heels 30-3 in 2005 and held on for a 27-24 win at UNC en route to the 2004 ACC title.
* For a third straight week, Beamer has made his two quarterbacks – Taylor and Glennon – off limits for media interviews.
* UNC was 31st and Tech 32nd in this week's AP poll.
* Hokie senior linebacker Brett Warren earned ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors after notching a career-high 15 tackles against Georgia Tech.