With the difference of just a few plays, the mood of this article could have been drastically different than what it is right now. With the exception of about six minutes, this did not look like Virginia Tech’s game to win. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a team unprepared for a freshman quarterback coming into his starting debut and a rushing attack that generated 6.2 yards per carry and 235 total yards against Bud Foster’s side.
It was an uninspiring performance by a team deflated by a primetime loss at home to one of the best schools in the nation just a week ago. Yet when this game was all said and done, and quarterback Ryan Willis capped off an incredible 18-play, 98-yard drive in just under six minutes with a 1-yard throw in the flat to H-back Dalton Keene, I realized that all of that will go by the wayside and that this game will be remembered by the Hokie faithful as more than just a victory against a struggling 1–3 North Carolina, but as a testament to the grit and perseverance of this team.
Everyone can agree that as far as ugly wins go, that was possibly the ugliest it can get. The Tar Heels had the Hokies on the ropes all game with a stellar performance by a secondary that held Damon Hazelton to just two catches, only the first time he’s caught less than four receptions since the season opener against Florida State. The secondary also accounted for two interceptions against Willis. North Carolina did an especially great job of taking away the deep ball from Tech, not giving Willis anything easy down the field even in man-to-man situations. The pass rush also gave Willis fits in the pocket all game, sacking him four times.
Speaking of Willis, it was not a picture-perfect performance for the Kansas-transfer starting in his third game of the season. For the first time this season, Willis struggled to find any sort of rhythm in the passing game and instead had to rely on his feet to move the ball late in the game. Of the 98 yards on the final drive, Willis accounted for 31 of them thanks to some smart designed runs and some improvisation outside of the pocket. Willis’ fourth-and-9 scamper for 12 yards may very well have been the play of the game, and he finished the day as Tech’s leading rusher with 88 yards off of 15 carries. It’s hard not to think that his mobility might have been what saved Tech from a disastrous 3–3 record and its first conference loss of the season. It was the kind of gutsy performance that wins over a locker room and a fanbase just as the Hokies start to get deep into ACC play.
As with assessing Willis’ performance, it’s hard to examine Foster’s defense and not come away a little disappointed. Missed tackles were a common theme throughout the night for the Hokies as the Tar Heels dominated in the run game. Even with a replacement at quarterback due to injury, the defense never looked in control and instead gave up huge chunk plays that led to seven red zone trips. Granted those red zone trips only led to 19 points for North Carolina, but it’s concerning to see, especially considering the incredible start to the season this defense had against Florida State. This was a defense that was supposed to improve throughout the season, but they’ve instead left us with more questions than answers.
It’d be criminal of me not to mention the positives of the defense tonight though, as true-freshman linebacker Dax Hollifield and sophomore Rayshard Ashby stepped up big to combine for 18 tackles and two tackles for loss. Hollifield is quickly emerging as a favorite of Foster midway through the season. Redshirt-freshman Caleb Farley also stood out for Tech as he was picked on all game on the deep ball yet he held his own. Farley’s development at cornerback has been one of the better stories for Virginia Tech this season and he proved his worth in Chapel Hill on Saturday night. However, no one on the defense made a play as big as Tyree Rodgers did late in the fourth quarter. Rodgers’ forced fumble at Tech’s 1-yard line not only saved the game for the Hokies, but gave Tech the momentum it craved for the entire game. It’s no overexaggeration to call this the play of the season for Foster’s defense.
Looking forward, Virginia Tech leaves Chapel Hill as an unranked, young 4–2 team that still has a lot of lingering questions surrounding its ceiling for this season. Nobody really knows what team is going to show up every Saturday, nor do we know if this team is good enough to take on a team of Clemson’s caliber in the ACC, but what we do know is that this ragtag group will fight to the end of every game and do whatever it takes to come away with a victory, and if that isn’t Virginia Tech football, then I don’t know what is.