Hokies defense leaves soggy Tar Heels high and dry

Even though the rain, the wind and the sloppy conditions caused by Hurricane Matthew made moving the football next to impossible at times, especially in the passing game, they played only a small role in North Carolinas ugly 34-3 loss to Virginia Tech

Bob Donnan—X02835
Virginia Tech has won four straight against UNC since the Tar Heels spoiled former Hokies coach Frank Beamer's Blacksburg farewell in 2015 (AP file photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Everyone’s attention Saturday was on a Hurricane named Matthew. But even though the rain, the wind and the sloppy conditions caused by the mammoth storm made moving the football next to impossible at times, especially in the passing game, they played only a small role in North Carolina’s ugly 34-3 loss to Virginia Tech at Kenan Stadium. If the Tar Heels are looking for anyone to blame for their first regular-season ACC setback since November 2014, they need only look as far as themselves and a human named Bud. That would be Bud Foster, the long-time Hokies’ defensive coordinator whose complicated scheme bamboozled UNC’s usually high-powered offense for the second time in as many trips to Chapel Hill over the past three years. Just as it did to Marquise Williams in a 2013 victory, Foster’s defense blitzed, pursued, pounded and confused quarterback Mitch Trubisky into the worst performance of his career while forcing four turnovers and limiting the Tar Heels to their lowest yardage total in coach Larry Fedora’s five seasons. “They were mixing up coverages, bringing different blitzes,” said Trubisky, who saw his school-record streak of passes without an interception came to an end at 243 while getting picked off twice in the game. He completed only 13 of his 33 passes for 58 yards. “Throughout a series, I don’t know if they played a same defense twice. It was just me seeing things and us reacting to it as a team, picking things up. Credit to them for having a good game plan, everyone being in the right spot and playing hard.” As well as Tech played in limiting UNC to 131 total yards and its first game without a touchdown since being shut out by NC State in 2011, Trubisky and the Tar Heels were equally complicit in their own undoing. Twenty of the Hokies’ 34 points came as a direct result of four UNC turnovers. Another seven points were served up when Australian punter Tom Sheldon dropped a snap and was tackled at his own 4-yard line. In addition to the more costly mistakes, the Tar Heels (4-2, 2-1 ACC) also hurt themselves with dropped passes — two each by the usually sure-handed Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins, along with one each from Bug Howard and T.J. Logan — and converted only two of 14 third down opportunities. UNC ranked second in the ACC at 52 percent coming into the game. It was a self-destructive pattern that began on the Tar Heels’ opening series when after driving to the Tech 33, they failed to gain a yard on either third or fourth downs. “We have to find a way to get those one or two yards and get some momentum,” Trubisky said. “It didn’t happen, though.” And things snowballed from there. “I’m not sure we got into any kind of rhythm the entire game, whether it was Mitch or the running game or anything,” said Fedora, whose team’s offensive woes were compounded by the absence of leading rusher Elijah Hood and left guard Caleb Peterson because of injury. “You can’t turn the ball over four times. You’re not going to be able to get anything going.” For awhile, neither could the Hokies. Struggling just as much as UNC with the adverse conditions, Tech (4-1, 2-0) was only able to turn Trubisky’s first interception and a fumble by Khris Francis into a pair of Joey Slye field goals. Even after the Hokies’ Bucky Hodges came down with a difficult catch at the 1-yard line, leading to the game’s first touchdown just before halftime, the Tar Heels only trailed 13-3 going into the break. Whatever hope they had of stating a third straight winning comeback, however, ended quickly after the teams returned to the field for the second half. One play after Trubisky and Logan misconnected on a handoff, allowing Tech’s Woody Baron to recover at the UNC 22, quarterback Jerod Evans connected with fullback Sam Rogers on a touchdown pass that essentially broke the Tar Heels’ spirit. “At the end of the third quarter, start of the fourth quarter I did see in people’s eyes that it wasn’t going our way,” said tackle Nazair Jones, who led a defense that didn’t perform badly despite the lopsided final score. “We’ve got to give ourselves a chance to win.” UNC only allowed 264 yards, only about half what it was averaging the rest of the season. That still wasn’t good enough because of how poorly was its offense executed. To be fair, the loss of Hood and Peterson did have a negative effect on the Tar Heels’ ability to move the ball either on the ground or through the air and Fedora had to alter his game plan significantly because of the wind and rain that made the ball difficult to throw or catch. As the coach noted afterward, though, Tech “played in it, too (and) they seemed to handle the weather.” Of course, the conditions probably didn’t feel quite as bad to the Hokies once they jumped out on top and began to pull away. “The rain kind of tricked our minds a little bit,” said Logan, who accounted for nearly all of his team’s offense with 67 rushing yards and six catches for 30 more. Hurricane Matthew may have had the Tar Heels “tricked out,” but not as much as Foster and his Hokies defense.