"I thought we battled with them most of the ball game. You can't turn the ball over going in. Those are plays that you've got to have. When you get in the red zone you've got to score. I still think we've got a good football team, but we've got to be able to master some of those plays. I think we'll continue to get better from this game and be ready to play next week."
- North Carolina head coach Everett Withers following his team's 24-21 loss to Virginia Tech Thursday night in Blacksburg
33 Recorded temperature on the field when Thursday night's game kicked off---easily the coldest game of the year for UNC
4 Times in the last five meetings between North Carolina and Virginia Tech that the final score was decided by a touchdown or less
Virginia Tech's ACC record in league games played in November since joining the conference in 2004
Virginia Tech took a giant step towards once again claiming the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division Thursday night, handing North Carolina its fourth loss in its last five games, 24-21. The Hokies will win the division outright if arch-rival Virginia loses Saturday at Florida State, or they can win it by knocking off the Cavaliers next weekend in Charlottesville.
At this point UNC's best hope is to finish the regular season with a winning record while improving its bowl prospects with a win at home against Duke in the regular season finale over Thanksgiving weekend.
North Carolina came out gangbusters on defense early, as junior Sylvester Williams forced a fumble out of Virginia Tech starting quarterback Logan Thomas on the very first play from scrimmage. UNC promptly marched 20 yards on three plays, with redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard scoring his ACC-tying 13th touchdown of the season to give the Tar Heels an early 7-0 advantage.
Virginia Tech took control of the game in the second half, putting together two unanswered scoring drives in the third quarter to take a commanding 24-7 lead, and then withstood a late UNC rally, as the Tar Heels scored twice in the final quarter and actually had the ball with three seconds with a chance to win. But a pair of costly missed field goals, combined with the key turnover in the first half, were just too much for the visiting Tar Heels to overcome.
WR Dwight Jones: Tar Heel fans have gotten used to big outings this season out of their star senior receiver, and Jones once again didn't disappoint, making six catches for another 100-yard outing---105 to be exact. Although he didn't officially find the end zone---his diving play in the first quarter only set up a UNC touchdown---Jones was a driving force in multiple UNC drives. He had a long reception of 26 yards, and spent much of the game finding success over the middle. It was another tremendous outing for Jones, who with each passing game is doing more and more to raise his profile for the National Football League.
WR Erik Highsmith: In our pregame 'Keys to the Game' feature we discussed how important it was for players like Highsmith to step up in order to take some of the pressure off Jones and quarterback Bryn Renner, and that's just what Highsmith did, making five grabs for 90 yards, including a 64-yard reception late. He would also score a touchdown from five yards out that made the score 24-14. With Jones set to graduate after this season Highsmith is going to have some big shoes to fill in 2012, and he showed Thursday night that he can be up to the challenge.
QB Bryn Renner: Coming off his dreadful performance against N.C. State---and the concussion he suffered against the Wolfpack---it would have been somewhat easy to count out Renner against the Hokies. But Renner played a game of mistake-free football that gave his team a chance down the stretch. Renner again completed over half his passes, finding the mark on 14 of 26 throws for 224 yards and a score. He was only sacked once, and he avoided any interceptions. Simply stated, Renner did what he had to do to give UNC a chance to win this game. Nobody can put the finger at Renner as the guy who lost it for the Tar Heels.
Honorable Mention: DB Tre Boston: We wanted to give a shout-out to Boston as a way of recognizing UNC's defense for a respectable effort against one of the best offensive football teams in the ACC. Boston finished the game with 12 tackles, and while he didn't force a fumble or get an interception, he was a vital cog in UNC's ability to hold David Wilson under 100 yards. Along with his double-digit tackles, Boston had 1.5 tackles for loss, driving Virginia Tech back a total of 14 yards. Given Boston's back-and-forth situation this fall, and the discomfort he showed earlier in the season back at safety, this was a very important performance for Boston to have.
COMPETITIVE EARLY START
North Carolina came out of the gate fired up and ready to play Thursday night, particularly on defense, as the Tar Heels forced a fumble out of Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas on the game's very first play. Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams raced in and stripped the ball away, leading to a UNC possession and a 20-yard march to the end zone for the game's first touchdown less than three minutes in. Gio Bernard scored his ACC-leading 13th touchdown from four yards out, and North Carolina was on the scoreboard.
After the Carolina defense stuffed Virginia Tech on a fourth down in UNC territory the Tar Heels marched again and were in position to score a second time, moving inside the Virginia Tech 5 with a chance to take an early 14-0 lead. But a Ryan Houston fumble was recovered by Derrick Hopkins.
From that moment, the game pretty much belonged to Virginia Tech.
The Hokies promptly embarked on a punishing 18 play, 95-yard possession that ate nearly eight minutes off the block and climaxed with a Thomas 11-yard touchdown throw to Chris Drager, tying the game 7-7 at the 9:18 mark of the second quarter. Virginia Tech then got the ball back after a UNC punt and pushed towards another score, as a 33-yard run by David Wilson set up a field goal that gave the Hokies a 10-7 advantage with just under five minutes left in the first half.
UNC pushed into Hokie territory in the closing minutes of the half, but a 43-yard field goal attempt by Thomas Moore went wide and to the left. But despite trailing at the half, the Tar Heels did what they had to do over the first 30 minutes to give themselves a chance. They forced a turnover, they played solid team defense, and they didn't make any critical mistakes on the offensive side other than failing to convert the second touchdown opportunity. All in all the first half couldn't have gone much better for UNC given the intimidating circumstances and the quality of the opponent they were facing.
THIRD QUARTER MELTDOWN
UNC played with a great deal of focus and intensity in the first half, only to see the momentum they built withered away by a dominant Virginia Tech third quarter. The Tar Heels surely missed Bernard, who suffered a mild concussion in the first half and was held out of action over the game's final 30 minutes.
Without Bernard UNC leaned heavily on Houston and A.J. Blue, and combined they mustered 75 yards on 18 carries. But it couldn't stop the surge of momentum that Virginia Tech used in the third quarter to take control of the game.
Quarterback Logan Thomas scored on a 23-yard run bootleg right up the gut for one score, culminating a nine-play, 70-yard drive that gave Virginia Tech a 17-7 lead with 9:02 left in the third quarter. Then a few minutes later a 39 yard pass from Thomas to Jarrett Boykin set up an over-the-shoulder 18-yard catch by D.J. Coles for another Virginia Tech score, which made the count 24-7 with 25 seconds left in the quarter. These two scoring drives ultimately were all the Hokies needed in the second half offensively to hang on and get the win.
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE
The game was all but over in the fourth quarter---at least seemingly in the minds of the media members who were already putting work in on postgame articles, and the fans, many of whom started making early exits to beat the crowd. Nobody sent the memo to the UNC offense, as they put together two inspiring scoring drives down the stretch to make the Hokies sweat a little bit in the closing minutes.
Following an Erik Highsmith 5-yard touchdown on a fourth down play, the Tar Heels were able to reclaim possession and pushed 91 yards, aided by Highsmith's long pass gain. By the time Houston tumbled into the end zone, making the score 24-21 with 2:32 to play, those Virginia Tech fans who hadn't already left were hanging onto their seats. Virginia Tech recovered an onsides kick and successfully ran the ball down to three seconds, and a desperation Renner pass fell incomplete as time expired.
Although Carolina's late drive was inspiring from the standpoint that the team didn't give up, the costly missed field goals earlier in the game, combined with the hole UNC dug itself into in the third quarter, were painfully evident. They didn't seem big at the time, but either one of Thomas Moore's missed field goals could have forced overtime. But the swirling wind inside Lane Stadium proved unlucky for Carolina.
BLUE DEVILS AWAIT HEELS
With 11 regular season games under their belts, its once again come down to the regular season finale against Duke for the Tar Heels. It's a very important game for UNC not only in terms of finishing the regular season with a winning record at 7-5, but also guaranteeing the Heels earn a bowl berth.
If UNC somehow managed to lose to the Blue Devils, that would make five losses in six games to close out the season, as well as pushing the team's conference record this fall to a dreadful 2-6. Under those circumstances, there's no certainty that the Tar Heels would earn a quality bowl berth with several teams, including Miami, Virginia, Wake Forest, in position to be higher on the pecking order. The team's best chance of a bowl at that point would probably be either the Military Bowl or the Kraft Fight Hunter Bowl.
The Duke game is always for pride, no matter what the records are, and that will clearly be the case this time around on Senior Day in what's going to be an emotional final game in Kenan Stadium for a lot of people presently associated with Tar Heel football.
It's hard to imagine that UNC won't be fired up to play this game given its Senior Day, and the fact that it's essentially a curtain call for the Butch Davis era, most of the staff he brought to Chapel Hill, and many of the players he recruited. It should make for a bittersweet day full of interesting storylines to follow.
Saturday, November 26 vs. Duke in Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill. 3:30 pm, Raycom Network.