The 13th-ranked Hokies enter Thursday night's contest with a 5-2 (3-1 ACC) record. Despite a season-opening 34-24 loss to No. 2 Alabama, Virginia Tech remained in the national title conversation until dropping a critical 28-23 loss at No. 11 Georgia Tech 10 days ago. The Hokies' 23rd edition under head coach Frank Beamer's direction has been solid across the board, ranking the in the top-five of ACC programs in 11 statistical categories. Virginia Tech is 9-2 all-time on Thursday night ESPN broadcasts at Lane Stadium and has won all five meetings against UNC as an ACC member.
"I like this bye week. I think this one came at a good time." – Beamer
"You've got your BCS, your conference situation – there's a lot of football to be played. All we can control is our effort against North Carolina." – Beamer
"We've got to get back in the win column. We've got to get back on track and start playing like we know we can. We have a tough road ahead of us for the rest of the season. We've just got to do everything we can to get as many wins as possible." – UNC quarterback T.J. Yates
"I think the loss on Thursday has motivated some people to go above and beyond the call of duty to do a lot more than what they've been doing. So I think you're going to see a better effort out of every phase of the game on Thursday." – UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson
Talk at July's ACC Football Kickoff seemed to suggest that the conference would end up being Virginia Tech and the 11 dwarfs during the '09 season, but those projections were dealt a severe blow when running back Darren Evans went down with a season-ending knee injury several weeks later. The sophomore was coming off a rookie campaign in which he posted an ACC freshman record 1,265 yards and sprinted to the top of the Hokies' freshman single-season rushing chart.
That loss would be crippling for most programs. But, then again, most programs cannot boast a backup tailback that has earned the nickname "Mr. Electric." Red-shirt freshman Ryan Williams only added fuel to the burning hype surrounding him coming out of Stonewall Jackson (Va.) High School when he took the first handoff in last April's spring game 80 yards for a touchdown.
Even so, having to replace a proven player such as Evans in the starting lineup is a difficult task for a first-year tail back. All Williams has done is earn CBSSports.com 2009 Midseason All-America honors by grinding out 834 rushing yards, including five 100-yard rushing games. The 5-foot-10, 206-pounder ranks seventh nationally in rushing yards per game (119.1).
In addition to his rushing totals, Williams has 165 yards receiving and 11 total touchdowns through seven games, while earning ACC Rookie of the Week honors on five occasions – three shy of the record set by N.C. State's Philip Rivers. Maybe even more impressive is that in 140 rushing attempts, the frosh has broken 48 tackles.
His 834 rushing yards are the third-most by a Hokie freshman, trailing Evans and Kevin Jones' 957 yards in 2001.
Matchups to Watch
North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech's Beamer Ball
When you think of Virginia Tech football, you think of "Beamer Ball" for a reason. The statistics created by the blend of special teams and defense are so absurd it's almost laughable. Under Beamer's guidance, the Hokies have blocked 123 kicks and scored 33 special teams touchdowns.
Bud Foster's defensive unit has produced touchdowns by 44 different players, while serving as the only squad to rank top-10 nationally in total defense in each of the past five seasons. It doesn't hurt that Foster-led Hokie defenses have held its opponents to 103.0 rushing yards and 16.2 points per game since 1995.
The current Virginia Tech roster features seven different players with interceptions, five with blocked kicks and five with non-offensive touchdowns for their careers. One of those players is Dyrell Roberts, who ranks first nationally in kickoff returns with a 40.8 yards-per-return average.
That doesn't bode well for a North Carolina kickoff coverage unit that ranks 65th nationally, allowing 21.7 yards per return with just one touchback to Casey Barth's credit.
"They are very good, as all Frank Beamer teams are, on special teams," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "They're sound fundamentally. They've got explosive players. They have the ability to make plays, not only in kick returns and punt returns, but the pressure that they put on you from your own coverage aspect."
As good as the Hokies' defense has historically been, the numbers this season don't seem to measure up. Virginia Tech ranks 31st nationally in total defense (317.4 ypg) and 28th in scoring defense (19.1 ppg), while forcing just 12 turnovers (71st nationally).
But don't try telling Davis that bit of information, as he knows full well that his struggling offense (289.4 ypg, 114th nationally) holds down the No. 11 spot in the ACC with 17 lost turnovers.
"In the two seasons that I've been here, this is the best defensive football team that I've seen Virginia Tech have," Davis said. "The defensive line is very active… It's a traditional Bud Foster defense. They're not going to beat themselves. They're going to be in the right place and they're going to make plays."
If the Tar Heels are hoping to pull off a huge upset, they have to prevent big plays from the "Beamer Ball" phases of the game.
North Carolina's Defense vs. Virginia Tech's Offense
The Tar Heels currently lead the ACC in total defense and rank seventh nationally in giving up just 266.3 yards per contest, but those statistics ring hollow following the utter collapse against Florida State in the second half last Thursday. After holding the Seminoles to 77 yards of offense through seven possessions, Christian Ponder directed his squad on four straight scoring drives (three touchdowns, one field goal) that totaled 290 yards with a 9.7-yards-per-play average.
And while Virginia Tech has not boasted a frightening offensive attack since the Michael Vick era, quarterback Tyrod Taylor (68-of-118, 1154 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency (159.86) to compliment Williams' theatrics in a rushing attack that is averaging 5.8 yards per clip.
The Hokies have produced 53 total plays of 20 yards or more this season, including 19 plays of 40 yards or more. Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring's squad is applying the pressure early, outscoring opponents 137-52 in the first half.
"Obviously, they're accomplishing right now what a lot of offenses want to try to accomplish, and that's balance," Davis said. "You want to be able to have a really good solid running game that produces a lot of yards and explosive plays, and then you want to have a passing game that can do the same thing. And I think that they've been able to do that."
For a Tar Heel defense that ranks second in the ACC in run defense (102.6 ypg), here's a statistic to remember – since the start of the 1999 season, Virginia Tech is 95-10 when outrushing its opponent.