UNC quarterback T.J. Yates (108-of-183 passing, 1,028 yards, 7 TD, 8 INT) has drawn criticism through seven games despite youth and inexperience filtering through the wide receiver and offensive line ranks, but running back Shaun Draughn (126 yards on 23 carries) helped North Carolina churn out 238 rushing yards on a 5.8-yards-per-carry average against Florida State.
UNC could potentially field its preseason starting five along the offensive line for the first time since the season opener against The Citadel with Lowell Dyer's return from a shoulder injury.
And although the Tar Heel defense is still licking its wounds after falling apart against Florida State, Everett Withers' squad still leads the ACC in total defense and ranks seventh nationally in giving up just 266.3 yards per contest.
"We've got a battle coming in here,'' Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. "This North Carolina team is ranked seventh nationally in total defense, 12th in pass defense and they've got a lot of tackles for losses. They are a very talented defense. They have an offense with a veteran quarterback and some young players who are developing. We understand we better be at our best.''
Virginia Tech counters with its "Beamer Ball" approach, designed to create viable scoring opportunities for both the defense and special teams phases. Bud Foster's unit ranks 31st nationally in total defense (317.4 ypg) and 28th in scoring defense (19.1 ppg), while Dyrell Roberts leads the nation in kickoff returns with a 40.8 yards-per-return average.
Punter Brent Bowden has also been a factor through seven games, leading the ACC (11th nationally) with a 44.1 yards-per-punt average and 10 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.
It also helps that Beamer can roll out quarterback Tyrod Taylor (68-of-118, 1154 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT, 159.86 passing efficiency) and running back Ryan Williams (119.1 ypg, 7th nationally) for an offense that has produced 53 total plays of 20 yards or more this season, including 19 plays of 40 yards or more.
"They're a very physical offense," UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "They like to run the ball downhill, which is my kind of game. I like a physical, downhill running kind of game where it's mano-a-mano. It's you either man up or you can't play this game."
If the Tar Heels had manned up against Florida State, they would hold in their possession a 5-2 (1-2 ACC) record. But that familiar foe known as lack of composure emerged from the shadows of the famed Kenan Stadium pines last Thursday night, suffocating the Tar Heels into a late-game collapse. In 2008, North Carolina held a fourth-quarter lead in 12 of its 13 ball games, but was unable to close out four of those contests due to a variety of reasons, including defensive lapses and failed offensive execution.
In UNC's come-from-behind victory at Connecticut on Sept. 12, it appeared as though this program had learned from its past transgressions. The loss to Florida State suggested otherwise. Coughing up five fourth-quarter leads in two seasons is the difference between a 17-3 overall record and the current 12-8 mark.
The Tar Heels now find themselves needing three wins in their last five games to earn bowl eligibility – a proposition that looks difficult when considering that the next month includes road trips to Boston College and N.C. State and home contests against Miami and Duke. The Hokies, on the other hand, will likely need to win out against its ACC schedule and hope for a Georgia Tech loss to return to the conference championship game.
"You just never know what's going to happen," Beamer said. "In sports, you better just keep playing yourself, be as good as you can be ... and then see where you stand at the end."
North Carolina is apparently evoking the same mentality.
"We've played Virginia Tech tough the last couple of years, so we should be confident,'' Wilson said. "If we can go to Virginia Tech and beat them on a Thursday night, it will be a statement win for this program.''
Virginia Tech is 9-2 in Thursday night games played at Lane Stadium.