Heel turn: No. 10 UNC drops opener at Virginia Tech

The Hokies sacked Carolina QB Sam Howell six times in a 17-10 win

Virginia Tech's Raheem Blackshear runs while pursued by UNC's Ja'Qurious Conley and Eugene Asante during the Hokies' 17-10 win Friday in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Matt Gentry / The Roanoke Times via AP)

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Braxton Burmeister ran for a touchdown and threw for another and Virginia Tech made Sam Howell look pedestrian in a 17-10 victory over the No. 10 Tar Heels on Friday night in the opener for both teams.

Burmeister scored on a 4-yard run and found James Mitchell for an 11-yard scoring strike as the Hokies built a 14-0 lead they took into halftime.

They struggled to put the game away in the second half until the final minute when they chased Howell from the pocket at the Virginia Tech 40 and he tried to find a teammate but instead threw an interception to seal the outcome.

“We couldn’t put the game away, but the defense continued to rise to the occasion,” coach Justin Fuente said, calling it as impressive a performance as he’s seen.

Howell, who’d thrown eight touchdown passes in two prior games against Virginia Tech, was sacked six times and harassed all night. His final pick came when he was in the grasp of Jordan Williams and found Chamarri Conner.

The play was reviewed, and when the officials announced that it was an interception, the sellout crowd at Lane Stadium erupted with relief. Many fans joined the team in celebration on the field after the game, which marked the first time since the 2019 season that fan attendance was not limited.

“Obviously, now the shine’s off and the rating sure doesn’t matter tonight,” Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said. “We were overrated with the way we played.”

Howell did become the Tar Heels’ career touchdown pass leader with 69 when Josh Downs took a screen pass 37 yards for a score in the third quarter, but he was unable to find his usual magic late.

The Tar Heels’ ranking was their highest in the preseason since the 1997 team was No. 7, but they will surely tumble. UNC will have its home opener next Saturday against Georgia State.