For once it wasn't the defense.
UNC got a sufficient defensive effort against Virginia Tech but it was the offense that came up short leading to a 34-17 loss. The Heels drop to 0-2 in the ACC and 2-3 overall.
The lug nuts were flying off barely ten seconds into this game. On UNC's first play of the game, Marquise Williams was crushed by two Virginia Tech defenders and lost the football. The Hokies recovered at 16 yard line and punched it in two plays later to take an early 7-0 lead. UNC responded on the next possession driving 64 yards fueled largely by Williams' running. The junior quarterback had runs of 23 and 11 yards as UNC drove as far as the Hokie four yard line. An inexplicable decision to run Romar Morris on 2nd down followed by Jack Tabb dropping the first of many passes on the day. UNC settled for a field goal when a touchdown was badly needed. Virginia Tech answered in kind on the next possession in one of only three sustained drives the Hokies put together on the day. A 12-yard 82 yard drive consumed 5:33 and gave the Hokies a 14-3 edge.
UNC's next possession was the third series of the game and Larry Fedora continued his experiment with bringing Mitch Trubisky into the game for the third UNC series. At this point, using Trubisky like this is for the express purpose of getting the redshirt freshman repetitions in live action. It is also clear that goal supersedes any other considerations or the game situation in general. When asked about it in the postgame press conference, Fedora defended the move with this:
Fedora on putting Trubisky in: "As a coach you start searching for a spark"— Harold Gutmann (@haroldgut) October 4, 2014
The problem with this statement is Williams had given UNC that spark. UNC had a disastrous first series with the turnover. Williams bounced back to lead the team down inside the Hokie four yard line before settling for a field goal. WIlliams' legs were a big reason for that productivity so instead of staying with him, Fedora opted to continue to use Trubisky. UNC went three and out and when Williams did return the offense struggled to produce.
Meanwhile the defense held up its end of the bargain. There were still lapses but there were plenty of stops and opportunities for the offense to control the ball and get points. Following the Hokies' second touchdown, UNC forced a turnover on downs and two punts. The Hokies were held to 14 total yards on 12 plays in that span. Virginia Tech did manage a 70-yard drive for a field goal but at 17-3 the game wasn't wholly out of reach.
That is until Fedora opted for Mitch Trubisky again. At this point it could be argued UNC needed a spark and Trubisky did move the offense pushing the Heels to the UNC 45-yard line with 1:01 left. Trubisky then attempted to throw a pass out to the perimeter but instead had it picked off by the Hokies' CB Kendall Fuller. Fuller jumped the route and had a clear field ahead of him for a pick-six to give the Hokies a 24-3 lead. Fedora said afterwards the fault was with the receiver for stopping but a pass like that, in that situation, is highly questionable.
The second half was more of the same. UNC forced four consecutive Hokie punts to open the half holding Virginia Tech to negative yardage on three of those drives. The offense continued to be hamstrung. Virginia Tech's defense was a critical factor in how poorly UNC's offense performed. The Hokies got plenty of pressure on Williams. At times he handled it and made things happen. Other times he was sacked. The Hokies had five sacks and seven tackles for a loss on the day disrupting UNC's offense.
UNC finally got a break on an interception deep in the Hokies' end of the field by M.J. Stewart. The Tar Heels immediately capitalized to make it a two score game at 24-10. After a Hokie field goal, Williams engineered a 76-yard touchdown drive with 4:15 left in the game. UNC, down two scores again, forced a punt but Ryan Switzer muffed it and gave the Hokies the ball back on the Tar Heel ten yard line. Switzer, who had injured his hand earlier in the game wasn't originally going to take the punt. Freshman TE Austin Proehl was on the field but Switzer came on instead. The issue with his hand may have compromised his ability to catch the football and it cost UNC a possession. Virginia Tech scored a touchdown two plays later for what would be the final 17 point margin.
On the game UNC gave up 357 yards, 171 of them on the ground. Virginia Tech held the ball for over 40 minutes. While UNC's offensive style doesn't generally provide for the Heels owning the time of possession. However if UNC is going to have the ball for 19 minutes, it needs to be extremely efficient. The inability to sustain drives and three turnovers put the defense is a very tough situation. Virginia Tech needed just 26 yards and a pick-six to tally 21 points. The Hokies had just three drives that were longer than 30 yards. One of them was a six minute plus soul sucking drive to make it a three possession game late in the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels recorded three sacks, seven tackles for a loss and an interception. When given a fighting chance, the defense did the job.
The offense gave too much away and struggled against the Hokie's defense. The offensive line was especially bad as evidenced by the sacks and the fact UNC couldn't run the ball. The Tar Heel rushing attack was comprised of Marquise Williams who recorded a career high 19 rushes for 94 yards. T.J. Logan, Romar Morris and Elijah Hood combined for 15 yards on nine attempts.UNC also committed more penalties, most of them at absolutely the wrong time. Big gains were wiped out, UNC ceded 26 yards of field position after Tommy Hibbard was forced to punt a second time following a holding penalty and a stop on third and fourth down was negated by offsides flags.
With a trip to Notre Dame next week, things will not get any better for this team. UNC has players and at times can put together some quality play but simply not enough to overcome the various lapses that continue on a loop from one week to the next.
(Apologies for the distortion)