There were a pair of hype trains that entered Lane Stadium on Friday night: #10 North Carolina as a playoff sleeper and Sam Howell as a Heisman contender. Virginia Tech had other plans that led to the early derailment of both those trains likely for good this season.
Virginia Tech beat #10 North Carolina 17-10 for their tenth win against an AP top 10 in program history, and first victory against a top 10 team under head coach Justin Fuente. This is also the highest ranked team that Tech has beaten since their 2014 upset victory against Ohio State in Columbus.
Tech was absolutely dominant in the first half on both sides of the field controlling the clock for 20+ minutes while the Hokies held North Carolina to 0 points. Tech also started the game 6-6 on third downs and reached the red zone on their first 3 possessions producing 14 points and leaving points on the board via a Keshawn King fumble.
Points left on the board would become a major theme that proved to be for naught in the end as Tech's decision to go ultra conservative with 2 timeouts inside the final 2 minutes may have cost Tech a few points.
The value of those lost points made for a more stressful second half especially as Tech's offense started to struggle and leave more points including Burmeister missing a wide open Tre Turner for what would have likely been a long touchdown.
Despite that, Tech's defense kept control of this game and while they did give up a couple touchdowns including one off an inside screen to Josh Downs for a long score, Tech's defense never folded though coming back stronger all the way to a Chamarri Conner interception inside the final minute to seal the deal.
Tech's defense had arguably their best performance under the reign of Justin Hamilton giving up under 360 yards to one of the top returning QBs in the country while also having 6 sacks and 3 interceptions, keeping Sam Howell uncomfortable all night.
Tech's defensive end play was particularly impressive as Amare Barno and TyJuan Garbutt had the best combined game for Tech starting DEs in years potentially.
Barno had a huge game that should earn him national honors with 6 tackles including 3.5 for loss with 1.5 sacks plus a forced fumble and QB hurry. While Barno was a known playmaker, Garbutt reminded Hokie fans of the breakout promise he showed in 2019 with a big game tonight having 5 tackles including 2 sacks plus a forced fumble.
Tech's most experienced defensive backs also had big games as a healthy Jermaine Waller looked like the Waller of old with 7 tackles, 1 interception, and 1 pass breakup; while Chamarri Conner led the Hokies with 8 tackles in addition to his huge, late tackle. Armani Chatman and Dorian Strong also played at a high level opposite Waller combining for 3 pass breakups with Chatman having an impressive tackle for loss as well.
Offensively, Braxton Burmeister had a strong first half on his way to a solid game overall albeit with some second half inconsistency. He finished the game outplaying his UNC counter part going 12-19 for 169 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception while running for 42 yards and a touchdown on 9 carries.
Tre Turner had himself a strong game with 4 catches for 66 yards plus a 12-yard jet sweep to lock in the victory after the Conner interception. Turner could have easily had more after a dropped touchdown in the first half followed by Burmeister not finding a wide open Turner for what would have been a long touchdown.
Raheem Blackshear was finally used significantly in the passing game and made a big impact with 3 catches for 66 yards along with 16 rushing yards including a few strong runs. James Mitchell showed why he's one of the best tight ends in America with 3 catches for 36 yards including a touchdown while Jalen Holston led Tech with 49 rushing yards on 13 carries and Tayvion Robinson had 2 carries for 25 yards plus a 2-yard reception.
Sam Howell's Heisman hopes vanished into the Blacksburg night as he was 17-32 for 208 yards, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions plus 35 rushing yards. Josh Downs proved that UNC still has at least one playmaker at wide receiver with 8 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown while Tennessee transfer RB Ty Chandler led all players with 66 rushing yards on 10 carries. Ja'Qurious Conley was UNC's defensive star with 7 tackles including 1 for loss, 1 interception, and 1 fumble recovery.
There will be plenty of time to talk about how this game affects Justin Fuente's hot seat status and probably plenty of under and overreactions to that. But this isn't the time to talk about those conversations because tonight, there was no doubt that Virginia Tech was the more talented and better prepared team, something that Fuente has earned a reputation for in season openers at Tech.
Tech may have had a couple of errors with the Keshawn King fumble and a couple bad decisions by Burmeister, but this Tech team played the "Hard Smart Tough" football that they've branded themselves with during the Fuente era.
More importantly, you can see the growth of this roster from last year especially on defense where Justin Hamilton had a fantastic gameplan and the toughest unit on either sideline, making you wonder if he may be the guy with the head whistle sometime in future whether in a few years or a decade down the line.
Of course, there will be plenty of people calling this a fluke and some calling Tech a favorite to win the ACC Coastal. Time will tell on all those fronts, but tonight proved that this Virginia Tech team isn't a step behind UNC or Miami, they are right there with them ready for a fight for the Coastal crown.