Let's talk about T.J. Yates.
Yates has taken a lot of grief this season. Coming into this game he had as many interceptions as touchdowns, hadn't broken 250 yards passing in a game this season, and suffered under a collapsing offensive line and an increasingly dire season. He hit a low against Florida State last week, managing only 64 yards and throwing a critical interception early in the second half that brought FSU back into a game at exactly the wrong time.
But this game, on national TV, in Blacksburg was going well. The defense was playing spectacular. Against all odds, the running game had taken hold, with an incredbile mixture of sweeps, end-arounds, and Ryan Houston occasionally powering it right up the middle. Yates even had two touchdowns, on nicely placed passes to the left corner in the red zone. And now, in the fourth quarter, he just had to continue piloting the ship, letting UNC grind out the clock and protect a three point lead.
And on the first play from the line of scrimmage, he throws an interception into the backfield on his own five yard line.
Virginia Tech lives for turnovers, and UNC had done a great job up until that point of denying them. But this was a game killer. The defense put up another great goal line stand, but the Hokies slipped in to take a three point lead and all the momentum. And now it was left to Yates, never a great late game quarterback, to take the team down the field and rescue the season.
Oh, and the offensive line is going to false start twice on third down.
I've seen this before. I saw this last week. This was another Carolina late-game failure, another depressing Thursday evening, another long week in October. And yet, it wasn't. Three successful third down conversions, and one success on 4th and seven. Five completions, none over twenty yards, all on short passes, and then a series of rushes to get Casey Barth and easy field goal. Tie game. Not much more you can ask for.
OK, you can ask for a Virginia tech fumble inside their own thirty and then Ryan Houston grinding away the rest of the clock to set up a winning Barth kick. And hey, Carolina fans got that too! But this was Yates' day, coming back from one of the dumbest passes of the year to put the ball exactly where it needed to be against a Virginia Tech defense they strangely pulled everyone back into coverage. (Even the failed third down touchdown attempt that would have given the Heels the lead was well-placed; Greg Little just misjudged it.) The turnover will remain epically stupid, but the game won't be remembered for it. In an offense not designed for passing - Yates was only 18/28 for a meager 131 yards - he did enough in the clutch to get UNC,
0-4 0-3 in conference coming in, a Top-15 win.
Of course, it wouldn't have been possible without some incredible defensive play. The defense held the Hokies to 256 total yards, and 6-15 on third down conversions. Without the excellent field position from the interception, they'd never have been able to take the lead, and even then the Heels almost stopped them at the one. And then there was Shops play calling, learning from the rare successes of the FSU game and building a running attack that could frustrate Virginia Tech's big defensive line. If you had told me before the game the Heels would get 181 yards on the ground, I wouldn't have believed it. I may have even said something to that effect. But after two drives of rush-rush-sack-punt, they changed things up, eschewing the straight Draughn runs for early uses of Houston, wide reciever sweeps, and the occasional Draughn trickery. And it worked.
I fully expect most of the coverage of this game to be similar to last week, where all the focus is on FSU and the only reference to UNC is in the fact that by definition, there was another team on the field. There will be articles about what it means for Tech, and the other Tech, and the ACC, and I'm sure the word roulette will be tossed around tonight. But right now, this is Carolina's win, not Virginia Tech's loss. And it's a great feeling.