by Lee Pace
Some 50 hours before kick-off to the Tar Heels' first-ever "White Out" game in Kenan Stadium, against a Virginia Tech team unbeaten within the borders of North Carolina since its entry into the ACC in 2004, Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson professed to a flurry of butterflies deep inside. Born, raised and schooled in Texas and having spent his coaching career well south of the Mason-Dixon line from New Mexico to Mississippi, Anderson understood the reputation of Virginia Tech's football juggernaut for two decades under Frank Beamer. Specifically, he understood how obnoxious the Hokies could be on defense, and in two days he would get his first look in person at the beast of Blacksburg.
"Yeah, I'm nervous," he said Thursday morning. "I'm definitely nervous. How do we stack up? They've not been beaten much in this conference and this division for years. But I do know this: If we do what we're supposed to do, we can move the ball and be trouble for them."
Anderson drew comfort from the hole card he and the Tar Heels held against Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster and his unit. Anderson knew Tech had not yet seen an offense play at the Tar Heels' tempo and with such a myriad of threats: Three capable running backs and one gold-plated star in Giovani Bernard; a cohesive, mature and talented offensive line; and downfield playmakers ranging from the old guard in Erik Highsmith to the playful pup in Quinshad Davis, from the fiendish Eric Ebron to the emerging slot receiver in Sean Tapley.
Foster admitted last week a case of jitters himself. Simply watching tape of the Tar Heels' offense afforded him no true feel for the cadence of the attack since the coaching tape was clipped off from the ball being down on one play to being snapped on the next. "You don't get a true sense of how fast they're really going," Foster said.
"It might not be pretty early when their defense is fresh, but I think we can wear them down and take control of the game," Anderson said. "I think they're solid up front, but they're not real deep. If we can get our tempo going and wear them down, I think we can run the ball. But we need to be patient. It could be ugly at first."
Indeed, the Tar Heels were stoned three-and-out on their first three possessions. Quarterback Bryn Renner misfired on his first five passes. Carolina was blunted by a false start penalty. Bernard was smothered for minus-three yards on his first three carries.
"Those first three drives didn't start the way we wanted," Bernard said. "But we had a game plan, we knew we had to stick to it and that it would work in time. We didn't start fast but we finished fast."
"Once Bryn calmed down and starting playing football like he could, he played really well," Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora added. "It wasn't anything Tech was doing. He needed to relax and go play."
Ignited by a 94-yard touchdown by Tapley on a kick-off return and a 62-yard burst by Bernard on fourth-and-inches on the first play of the second quarter, the Tar Heels got to halftime with a 28-20 lead. That they had weathered storms on both sides of the ball was significant. The defense yielded an almost effortless score by Tech on its first series, and cornerback Jabari Price was beaten on a stutter step for a 49-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.
"We didn't lose our minds and we kept a little bit of poise," co-defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "We didn't respond very well earlier in the year when things went wrong. Today we didn't get rattled. That was good to see."
Carolina had obliterated its opponents by a 66-0 cumulative advantage in five third quarters this year. Anderson liked his unit's position at intermission.
"At halftime I told them we're going to push the tempo button and we're going to roll them out of the gym," he said. "We're going as fast as we can go. Their tongues are hanging out and they're walking."
Tar Heel linebacker Travis Hughes stripped the ball from a Tech ball carrier midway through the third quarter and recovered the ball himself, giving Carolina possession at the Tech 45. From that point the Tar Heels went on a 17-6 surge to take control of the game and land a watershed punch to Beamer and the Hokies. The Tar Heels' 48-34 win answered a lot of questions about a team that had clicked against lesser opponents in 2012 but clanked against Wake Forest and Louisville.
"We gave up some plays in some situations, but what our guys did, they never blinked in the face of adversity," Fedora said. "They just kept playing. They kept going. Nobody got down when something bad happened."
During that third-quarter deluge, Tech's defensive linemen were slower to move from play to play. There was heavy breathing and hands on knees. The stress built of having to gird up for a snap, then back off as Carolina looked to the sideline for a new signal or a check, then gird up again, and on some plays for a third time as well. Freshman guard Landon Turner landed a pancake block on one snap while subbing for Jonathan Cooper, whose helmet came off the previous play. Center Russell Bodine flattened tackle Derrick Hopkins on A.J. Blue's 13-yard touchdown, leaving Hopkins to sit for considerable time after the play was over trying to catch his breath. It actually worked to the Hokies' disadvantage that their lone success of the quarter-a kick-off return for a touchdown-put their defense right back on the field without a chance to rest on a sunny, 80-degree afternoon.
"You can see fatigue on somebody," Cooper said. "When you see that, you just want to put the pedal to the metal and keep going and run them out of the place."
By then the Tar Heels had a 45-26 lead and Fedora ordered Anderson to ease off the tempo, control some clock and not let the Tar Heel defense suffer the same fate as Tech's-that the Hokies were plum tuckered out.
"We slowed it down to help the defense in the fourth quarter," Anderson said. "It was the right thing to do. We had enough of a lead at that point."
The Hokies at 3-2 entering the game with losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were not quite the imposing force they've been in the past, but their tradition, name and swagger remain formidable nonetheless. For the Tar Heels to dominate in the running game by a 339-40 margin makes a hefty statement.
"I'm extremely excited about the way we ran the ball," Fedora said. "We controlled the ball the entire game except for several times when we shot ourselves in the foot. And we made them one-dimensional. We thought if we could do that, we'd have a great chance to win the game. You can't say enough good things about holding a team to 40 yards rushing, especially a team of that caliber."
Carolina is now 2-2 against Tech in its last four meetings, in case anyone's counting. The Tar Heels' win in 2009 (though later vacated) in Blacksburg was a shocker, coming as it did in a season when these senior offensive linemen were freshmen and T.J. Yates was throwing to freshmen receivers like Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd. Now those players have matured and they're driving a shiny new offense, one with a two-fisted punch of tempo and power.
"To win a close one against them three years ago was good," Cooper said. "But this one is like, amazing. To win in this fashion, I'm very happy. It's probably one of the top three wins of my lifetime."
"The last couple of years we were close to beating them," Bernard added. "I know I came back with a chip on my shoulder against them to try to do something special."
Saturday's win was certainly special, coming as it did wearing all-white uniforms for the first time since 1965 and Tar Heel Nation responding with nearly all fans wearing white. For once in more than two years of turmoil and transition in Chapel Hill, something truly good happened to the Tar Heels and their fans.
"To do this to a team like Virginia Tech is a huge confidence boost," linebacker Tommy Heffernan said. "Guys on this team are starting to realize we can do something pretty special if we keep working."
They'll enjoy it for 24 hours, but Fedora won't let them get cocky. He congratulated Bernard afterward on a great game but added he'd love Bernard even more "If you hadn't put the ball on the ground," a reference to Bernard's ill-fated idea of fielding a short punt late in the first half that resulted in a fumble lost to Tech. There was an assignment bust in the secondary that led to a 66-yard Hokie touchdown, and the Tar Heels had 15 penalties for 126 yards.
Still, that's picking nits when Carolina wins by two touchdowns over a perennial division bully. The Tar Heels aren't officially allowed to win the ACC Coastal Division championship, but that won't stop them from trying to win a makeshift title of their own.
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.