By now, you've probably read Dave's thoughts on the season opener, as well as Ricky's offerings about what he thought were the biggest takeaways of the game. With the high-level analysis out of the way, it's time to take a deeper look at specific elements that guided the Hokies to a victory Friday night.
In other words, let's look at the numbers and see what the statistics have to say.
The Game Was Statistically Strange
Not many offensive categories in the stat sheet will lead you to believe it was a good game for Virginia Tech. Braxton Burmeister threw as many interceptions as touchdowns, although he also scored once on the ground. The top three running backs each averaged fewer than three yards per carry. Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and James Mitchell only hauled in eight of the team’s mere 12 receptions.
In fact, 40 percent of the total passing yards (66 of Burmeister's 169 yards) came on three catches by running back Raheem Blackshear, with the biggest play of the night a 34-yard wheel route to Blackshear on what looked like a busted coverage by UNC on the Hokies' third play from scrimmage in the game. The lack of a downfield threat may have been related to the 3-yards per carry by Virginia Tech running backs, as UNC's secondary crept closer to the line due to a belief Burmeister was not going to be taking any long shots to stretch the defense.
Conversely, North Carolina’s top skill position players fared pretty well. Ty Chandler and D.J. Jones picked up 111 yards on 16 carries, and Josh Downs caught eight balls for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Tech’s Triumphs Came Early
The first and most obvious factor in this game was that the Hokies shut out the Tar Heels in the first half. Carolina only gained 113 yards in the half – and that’s including 29 garbage yards on a run by Jones as time expired.
As well as Virginia Tech’s defense played early, they also didn’t give the Heels’ offense many opportunities. On their first three possessions, the Hokies scored 14 points, and they did so with a slow and steady approach. On their first three drives, Tech gained 191 yards on 32 plays and drained nearly 20 minutes off the clock.
The Hokies’ dominance on offense resulted in UNC only possessing the ball for nine minutes in the first half. In addition to keeping the Tar Heels off the scoreboard, it also helped Tech’s defense stay fresh and dig deep when it needed to. With UNC putting together several second-half drives, the clock management in the first half may have been the game's deciding factor.
The Secondary Showed Up… For The Most Part
I came away from this game not quite as bullish on #DBU as most fans, and it’s mainly because of the second half. Although the Hokies intercepted three passes down the stretch, they weren’t entirely attributable to the secondary. One was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off by middle linebacker Dax Hollifield, and Sam Howell unnecessarily forced the game-sealing INT into a tight window.
In fact, if the Hokies hypothetically hadn’t forced three turnovers in the second half, they likely wouldn’t have won the game – even in spite of how dominant they were in the first half. Two of the interceptions undid a pair of UNC’s better drives of the night, which would’ve almost certainly otherwise resulted in points. In a one-score game, turnovers in those situations make a huge difference.
That’s not to say, however, that the Hokies didn’t play strong coverage for most of the game. They allowed Downs to beat them in space more often than you’d prefer to see, but Howell was unable to dial up the deep shots that his offense so often featured last season – most notably in their 56-point drubbing of this same defense last year.
The presence of Jermaine Waller – who missed most of last season – was certainly felt, and Dorian Strong followed up an outstanding freshman campaign with another strong performance on the other side of the field. The cornerback who impressed me, though, was surprising “co-starter” Armani Chatman. His skill set and measurables have always projected well, but this was arguably the best game of his career thus far. On a drive early in the fourth quarter, he registered an aggressive tackle for loss and a fourth-down pass breakup.
The safeties also played well. Chamarri Conner was all over the field, as usual, and led the team with 6 solo tackles and two assists. Wearing the honorary No. 25, he also held up better in pass coverage than normal, capped off by a game-winning interception. Second-year starter Keionta Jenkins (3 tackles) also was steady as the team’s new free safety, replacing Divine Deablo.
Is The Hunter Now Hunter’s Hunted?
Entering the night, safety Nasir Peoples had only played 14 defensive snaps in his career, and they all came in 2018. Not only did he start over Devon Hunter, but he went on to play all but two available snaps, made six tackles (4 solo), and at times looked like one of the best players on the field.
Therein lies a point that merits discussion, though. Where was Hunter? He was briefly on the field, but didn’t produce his way onto the stat sheet.
By all accounts, Hunter – who had a legal hiccup in the offseason – had been playing as well as he ever has in camp this offseason. After waiting his turn for years, he was in prime position to finally make an impact in 2021.
Why did we see Peoples instead, and will it continue? Was this a matchup-specific game plan, or did Peoples just secure the boundary safety job? It’s a question that I’m sure people would like to hear an answer to, although it won’t matter if Peoples continues to play well.
Teerlink and Tyler’s Units Were Terrific
This game was dominated by the Hokies’ front six. I generally don’t include Chamarri Conner in that group, since he’s essentially a “big nickel”, but he did record a team-high eight tackles with an interception.
Tech’s starting defensive linemen and linebackers all recorded at least a half-sack or quarterback hit. The leaders of the group were the defensive ends:
Mario Kendricks and Alan Tisdale also each recorded one of the Hokies’ six sacks, and backup defensive linemen Josh Fuga and Eli Adams each made a pair of tackles and looked as good as they ever have at the collegiate level.
The defensive line was generally solid in Bill Teerlink’s first season leading the unit. Friday’s performance was one of its better showings of his tenure.
Jack Tyler’s debut as Tech’s linebacker coach couldn’t have gone much better. Hollifield looks much more comfortable at MIKE – the position he was always supposed to play – and Tisdale seemed to have returned to his 2019 form at BACKER. No other linebackers made an impact, which will eventually need to be addressed, but the starters looked great.
Special Teams Still Weren’t Quite Special
In the kicking game, this wasn’t your typical Hokie performance. John Parker Romo did his job on kickoffs, and surprised many by nailing a 48-yard field goal on his first kick. But while he made the one with the high degree of difficulty, he missed the one that many expected him to make (a 31-yarder).
Peter Moore averaged nearly 45 yards per punt. His longest kick traveled 51 yards, and one was downed inside the 20-yard line. That’s not an Oscar Bradburn stat line, but was pretty close.
Neither Keshawn King (kick returns) nor Tayvion Robinson (punts) made much of an impact in the third phase. King was unable to take a kickoff out of the end zone, and Robinson’s lone return netted a loss of a yard. But hey, at least they got through a game without fumbling a kick.
Success Stories on Offense
There are still areas where the Hokies need to improve, especially on offense. They do, at least appear to have answers to important questions. Jalen Holston will likely be the lead running back, and Blackshear (three catches for 66 yards) will be more involved as a receiver, allowing the passing game to be a bit more diverse.
King at least got three carries – although he never returned on offense after fumbling in the red zone. Maybe that’s only a one-game punishment, but more likely, the majority of his involvement this season – barring injury – will be as a kick returner.
The success rate wasn’t great, but the Hokies ran for 167 yards, including 51 yards on nine attempts from Burmeister. The ability to consistently dive back into the well, combined with holding UNC to only one sack, is a testament to how well the offensive line played. Tech had three positions up front with new starters, yet none of them appeared to struggle. The OL only had one penalty - on Brock Hoffman for holding in the first quarter - which suggests a good degree of discipline and technical proficiency by the line.
What to Take Away
Frankly, most people slept on the fact that North Carolina lost its top two contributors from last year at both the running back and wide receiver positions. The Tar Heels didn’t have the playmaking ability to score points like they did last year, and a trip to Blacksburg wasn’t an ideal first game of the season for them.
Still, the Hokies just knocked off a top-10 team for the first time of Justin Fuente’s tenure as their head coach. That alone is an outstanding way to start a season and diminish the bad taste left by a sub-.500 season in 2020.
Silencing the Heisman Trophy campaign of the quarterback who plays for one of Tech’s leading rivals on the recruiting trail is never a bad thing, either.
The overwhelming majority of the Hokies’ position groups played admirably well. If they can find a hot hand in the backfield, the 2021 season could be much better than folks expected.
I am sure that you heard me screaming from Sec. 8 for Fuente to "Run the Ball!" and "Run the Clock" when Tech got down into FG range. Instead, Corn calls TWO pass plays, one which was incomplete to stop the clock, and then the second resulted in an interception. This judgement failure left two precious minutes on the clock for UNC that should not have been there, removed three sure points from the board, and thus led to the totally unnecessary sphincter clinching at the end of the game that should have never occurred.
This has been a maddening recurrent feature of Fuente's coaching over the years.