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UNC vs. Virginia Tech: Three Things Learned

Carolina’s defense puts in a performance they can hang their hats on while the offense keeps rolling.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After narrowly avoiding disaster in two Sun Belt road games, Carolina looked wobbly after losing to a Notre Dame team lacking offensive punch. A loss to an even more inept Virginia Tech attack would have been catastrophic. Fortunately, the Tar Heels put those fears aside with a comprehensive 41-10 win over the Hokies, a victory that included a defensive shutout in the second half. Here are three things learned from a big win over Virginia Tech that puts UNC 1-0 in ACC play.

Defense takes a big step forward

If we ignore all of the qualifiers—Virginia Tech has the 106th ranked offense in FBS, averaging just 330 ypg—UNC simply had to get more from their defense.

They did.

This defense will never be confused for the 1997 team that beat Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, but for this year’s squad they don’t need to be. They just have to get enough stops to let Drake Maye and the offense do their thing, which right now is scoring 46.5 ppg.

The Heels bowed up on Virginia Tech’s first offensive possession of the game, limiting the Hokies to a field goal after Kaleb Smith took a simple slant 34 yards to the UNC 24-yard line. VT began the series gaining chunks of yardage, which has been Carolina’s calling card so far this season.

On the final defensive series of the half (Virginia Tech’s only touchdown in the game), Carolina had opportunities to shut down the drive. Cedric Gray missed a tackle on a swing pass to Chance Black five yards behind the line of scrimmage on 2nd and 6, and the Hokies were given a generous spot on a 4th and 7 catch in the red zone. After that, the Heels were largely competent. They held the Hokies to 99 yards rushing (2.8 ypa) and 174 yards receiving. In the Coastal Division, those numbers will, on most days, lead to wins.

Carolina’s half-minute offense

After Virginia Tech scored their touchdown, there were 28 seconds left in the half. Carolina took the touchback and began their two-minute offense (with just one time out remaining) and ran it to perfection.

After an 18-yard completion to Bryson Nesbit, the Heels hurried to the line and got the snap off with just a 2.5 second run-off. Maye didn’t see anything downfield, so he tucked the ball and ran for 14 yards before getting out of bounds. A 16-yard completion to Antoine Green with six seconds left was enough room and time for Noah Burnette to drill the 44-yard field goal as time expired.

On another day in another game, this kind of offense will be needed to tie or win a game. Carolina demonstrated surgical precision on this drive and proved that they can score in the most constrained environments.

Rushing attack still needs work

Mack Brown made a point of needing more from his running backs, particularly on first down. Many thought that with the rain from Hurricane Ian, UNC’s devastating passing attack may have been grounded. That was not the case, fortunately, but the issue remains.

Carolina rushed for 160 yards, but Maye accounted for 73 of them—and both rushing touchdowns. Omarion Hampton had 37 yards on eight rushes, but 35 yards came on one run. Caleb Hood had 32 yards on seven carries, with 18 yards coming on a toss sweep. This isn’t good enough and UNC continues to not get good rushing yardage on first down, setting the defense up to bear down on Maye in obvious passing downs.

Weaker defenses abound in the ACC, so this could become a self-correcting problem, but Mack Brown is no closer to finding a feature back, nor can he divest himself from Drake Maye being the sun in the offense’s galaxy.

This is not a wise long-term plan, especially considering the nauseous feeling Carolina fans had when Maye took another leap on the right sideline and got taken to the medical tent in the third quarter. Maye’s bravery, bordering on recklessness, is a vulnerability that can literally make the offense fall apart if he goes down long term. The running backs need to step up so that Maye quits taking these hits.