With both starting safeties among 15 players sitting out in the first game for defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton, Virginia Tech surrendered its most points since 2002 and the second-most total yards (656) in program history.
“I hurt for our players,” said Coach Justin Fuente, who revealed that he used offensive players to practice in the secondary this week because of depleted numbers. “They battled through adverse conditions the last three weeks and showed tremendous resiliency and toughness. The last thing I am is upset at our guys.”
The offense, behind running back Khalil Herbert and quarterback Hendon Hooker, did its part to keep the proceedings competitive into the fourth quarter after the Hokies trailed by 25 points early in the second half.
Virginia Tech (2-1) scored the most points by a losing team in series history. It closed within 42-37 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter on Hooker’s 33-yard pass to wide receiver Tayvion Robinson. Hooker, who completed 7 of 13 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for a score in his season debut, played the entire second half in relief of Braxton Burmeister.
Herbert added 138 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries against the top-ranked run defense in the nation. The graduate transfer from Kansas had his third consecutive game with at least 100 rushing yards, helping Virginia Tech amass 495 yards of total offense as well as 31 points in the second half.
“You look at the scoreboard, and you kind of have to give yourself some encouragement,” Hooker said. “Honestly, everyone was in good spirits. Everyone was positive, so that’s all that we can hope for is just be positive and keep pushing forward to win the game.”
The defensive meltdown spoiled the debut of Hamilton, who is taking over for retired Bud Foster, the longtime architect of Virginia Tech’s defense. Hamilton had spent the first two games offering instruction virtually while quarantining at his home with his family, including a newborn baby boy.
The secondary continued to operate at a considerably reduced capacity, even with the return of starting cornerbacks Jermaine Waller and Armani Chatman. Starting safeties Divine Deablo and Keonta Jenkins were unavailable, and the Hokies lost reserve defensive back Chamarri Conner in the first quarter. Conner, a junior, was ejected for targeting with a little more than four minutes left when he launched himself into the helmet of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (18 for 23, 257 yards, three touchdowns), who was sliding at the end of a run.
Moments later, the Tar Heels (3-0) claimed a 21-0 lead courtesy of Javonte Williams’s 19-yard touchdown run. By that time, North Carolina held a 224-13 edge in total yards.
Virginia Tech trimmed its deficit to 21-14 on junior tight end James Mitchell’s one-yard touchdown run and an eight-yard scoring run from Herbert, but the Tar Heels closed the half with consecutive touchdowns. The second came with 16 seconds left on a 43-yard pass from Howell to Dyami Brown, who beat Waller.
The first half also included the first appearance by Hooker. Fuente named Hooker the starter before the season, but an undisclosed ailment kept the redshirt junior sidelined for the first two games, in which Virginia Tech was without 23 and 21 players.
Hooker opened the third quarter with a drive that ended with senior Brian Johnson’s career-best 55-yard field goal. That drew Virginia Tech within 35-17.
The Tar Heels moved in front 42-17 on a 16-yard scoring run by Michael Carter (214 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries) before Virginia Tech reeled off 20 points in a row.
“That’s always good as a team that we don’t give up, no matter how it plays out,” said Waller, a junior and a D.C. native. “It’s always good to keep fighting, never give up. At the end of the day, that’s what Coach Fu always preaches to us.”
The swings in momentum were reminiscent of last year’s memorable meeting that Virginia Tech won, 43-41, in six overtimes. It marked the longest game in ACC history and the debut of new overtime rules in which the teams exchange two-point conversion attempts beginning in the fourth overtime.
Saturday’s game was the second time Virginia Tech and North Carolina met with each team in the Associated Press top 25. The visiting Hokies, at the time ranked No. 25, won the previous meeting, 34-3, over then-No. 17 North Carolina in a driving rainstorm in 2016.