Instant Analysis Virginia Tech-North Carolina

Staff Columnist
Posted Sep 20, 2008

The state of North Carolina already witnessed one surprising collegiate football game on Saturday when N.C. State knocked off East Carolina. In a weird but real way, however, Virginia Tech's escape job against Butch Davis's Tar Heels might have carried even more of a "wow" factor.

Even though the Hokies enjoy a reputation as one of college football's more successful programs over the past decade, it was hard to imagine that—when trailing 17-3 midway through the third quarter—Virginia Tech could get off the canvas to score a pair of touchdowns and make things interesting in Chapel Hill. Tyrod Taylor and the rest of Tech's offense was summarily smothered by the defensive wrecking crew in Carolina blue in the game's first 35 minutes. In a contest dominated by defense, the Tar Heels didn't enjoy sustained dominance, but on just three snaps—two passes of over 25 yards, and a 50-yard touchdown run by Greg Little—the home team was able to catch a little lightning, enough—at any rate—for a 14-point advantage and a big dose of momentum.

With the Hokies unable to do anything whatsoever on offense, the outlook was bluntly bleak for the boys from Blacksburg. Carolina's defense seemed likely to keep Tech in check. The Butch Davis project was about to take another massive step forward, as the Tar Heel football program appeared ready to re-emerge on the national scene for the first time since a fellow named Mack Brown worked wonders on Tobacco Road in the 1990s.

Given the widely-acknowledged awareness of this game's significance for North Carolina, the subsequent turn of events carried far more freight than East Carolina's fall from grace earlier in the afternoon.

Yes, just when the Hokies seemed down for the count, they smartly and swiftly marched to a touchdown to cut Carolina's lead to 17-10. Shortly thereafter, Little—the same man who romped 50 yards for a touchdown a few series earlier—put the ball on the turf, and in a heartbeat, the tone of this tussle changed considerably. Emboldened and encouraged after Little's very big fumble, Tech needed just five plays to tie things up at 17. After one more exchange of possessions, the Hokies scratched out a field goal to take a 20-17 advantage. Big Mo wore maroon and orange at that point, and with UNC missing starting signal caller T.J. Yates—who left just before Little's touchdown run in the third quarter—the homestanding Heels were going to need something special from backup quarterback Mike Paulus in order to pull out a victory in this crucial (ACC) Coastal clash.

Interestingly enough, Paulus admirably led his mates downfield to the Tech 24, displaying far more game than anyone was prepared to expect. As surprising as the Hokies' 17-point surge proved to be, a Carolina touchdown—delivered by the unlikeliest of heroes—would have served as an even more amazing plot twist on an entirely unpredictable afternoon.

So close to victory and the spoils of a late-game conquest, Paulus—playing out a poignant narrative that is familiar to sports fans everywhere—tried so hard to be the big dog that he forced a pass into traffic inside the Virginia Tech 5. The one bad decision made by a young quarterback who generally played well was—as is so often the case—the one decision that came back to haunt Paulus. Victor Harris picked off the pigskin at the Hokie 2, and with a stout running game down the stretch, the Hokies used field position to take command of their division in the ACC.

Some might say that the outcome could have been different had T.J. Yates not been injured, but such an argument falls flat when one considers that Virginia Tech's offense—not its defense—is what ailed Frank Beamer's boys against North Carolina. It was the offensive side of the ball that finally came to life for the Hokies when they needed a boost, and it was Carolina's ground game—not its passing game—that faltered precisely when the Heels needed to protect their hard-earned lead. All in all, North Carolina played very well against the fortunate Hokies… just well enough to lose a close one, that is. The Tar Heels might have shown that their best days are ahead of them, but the veteran Hokies reminded the ACC that in the present moment, they still know how to close the deal within the conference. The road to the ACC title will now have to run through Blacksburg.

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