The Tar Heels did enough of the little things in the early going against Virginia Tech to keep the pressure on the defending ACC Champions. Thanks to another solid outing by punter Terrence Brown, North Carolina's average starting field position in the first quarter was its own 48-yard line, while the Hokies averaged their own 10.
But those numbers were reversed in the fourth quarter, as North Carolina's average starting field position was its 19-yard line, while Virginia Tech began on its 47.
The Hokies survived UNC's first four possessions, holding the Tar Heels to just three points despite three of those drives starting in Virginia Tech territory. After an 13-play, 89-yard drive to cut the deficit to 17-10, the Hokies scored 10 points in the fourth quarter on two possessions that began on UNC's side of the field. Those scoring opportunities were set up by a Greg Little fumble and a Anthony Elzy late hit on a punt return, respectively.
It's easy to place the blame on the shoulders of the quarterback in losses such as the one that occurred in Kenan Stadium on Saturday. But backup quarterback Mike Paulus cannot be held responsible for a defense that allowed Virginia Tech to tally 66 percent of its total offense (177 yards) in the final 21 minutes, 44 seconds.
"I thought one of the things that was a real contributing factor is that I thought we lost our composure," Davis said.
Excluding Tech's final possession that ran out the game clock, the Hokies rushed 10 times for 63 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
A legitimate argument could be made that the defense was simply worn out due to being on the field for over 17 of the final 24 minutes, thanks in equal parts to penalties and a miserable ground game.
After North Carolina forced a fourth down with Virginia Tech driving deep in UNC territory down 17-3, Quan Sturdivant picked up a 15-yard personal foul penalty after the whistle. Three plays later, Deunta Williams was called for a defensive holding penalty on 3rd and 10 that moved the Hokies to the 10-yard line and an eventual touchdown.
"It's a tough position to put your defense in, but what you'd love to do is – [like] when early in the ball game when we had the fumble – is to rise up and try to hold them to a field goal," Davis said. "Sometimes that's tough to do, but certainly you would have liked to have been able to do it more than just once during the course of the ball game."
While the 14 penalties for 121 yards was a high mark under Davis, the Tar Heels rushing attack continued to provide more of the same, or in other words, below-average production. Offensive coordinator John Shoop capitalized on his strengths at wide receiver, running five reverses between Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster that totaled 61 yards.
Good thing, because other than Little's 50-yard touchdown, the Tar Heel running backs failed to contribute much of anything, other than two costly turnovers that set up Virginia Tech scoring drives. While you cannot discount Little's big run that extended UNC's lead to 14 points, it's important to note that outside of that score, the sophomore and fellow tailback Shaun Draughn combined for 31 yards on 22 carries (1.4 yards per carry).
"Improving the running game, regardless of the quarterback situation, is something that we're working on," said Davis, adding that starting quarterback T.J. Yates is still undergoing evaluation for a left ankle sprain. "I think Virginia Tech's scheme defensively – they make it a long, hard day. You can be hardheaded and you can line up and try to run into eight and nine-man fronts as often as you'd like, but that's a tough, long [road to hoe]. We are going to continue to work on it."
Saturday was the perfect opportunity for North Carolina to gut out a victory with their leader injured on the sidelines, but instead, various mental collapses across the board put the ball in Paulus' hands to lead a comeback against the defending ACC champions. That's not an enviable position for any quarterback, especially a red-shirt freshman seeing his first significant action.
The Tar Heels must now move past this lost opportunity and prepare for a Miami program that walked onto Texas A&M's home field on Saturday and shredded the Aggies, 41-23.