November 18, 2011
UNC turnover turns game in Tech's favor
By Marc Mullen

With the late start to the game and the dark skies overhead, Virginia Tech fans may have thought they were dreaming after watching the first two minutes of the Thursday night contest against the Tar Heels.

Déjà vu must have been the feeling, as North Carolina became the third team this season to score on its opening possession at Lane Stadium. Also thoughts of the 2009 loss to UNC on a Thursday night may have started creeping in as well.

On the Hokies’ first play from scrimmage, Logan Thomas was sacked, fumbled and Tydreke Powell recovered the ball at the Tech 20 for the Tar Heels. Three plays later, North Carolina was up 7-0 just 1:18 into the contest – the Hokies’ earliest deficit of the season.

“The first play, we mess up with an alignment and fumble, and then give them momentum right away,” Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. “But the other side of it, I think our guys played hard, we battled, and that’s something, to be able to hang on and win the close ones. So I am proud of us in that regards.”

A season review – seven teams have now taken a first-quarter lead on Tech and the list includes Boston College (2:59 in) and Arkansas State (3:01). Of those seven, only during the Arkansas State game had the Hokies erased their deficit by the start of the second quarter.

As if the early deficit wasn’t bad enough, North Carolina took its second possession 69 yards in 10 plays to set up a first-and-goal at the Tech 5 with three minutes left in the first quarter.

“I was just trying to tell the whole defense, ‘They can’t get in this end zone again. Let’s force them to a field goal at best,’” Eddie Whitley said.

But before the Tar Heels could turn the Hokie fans’ bad dream into a nightmare, Antone Exum forced Ryan Houston to fumble on a rushing attempt, and Tech’s Derrick Hopkins recovered that fumble. Tech responded with a 95-yard touchdown march to tie the contest, and the Hokies never trailed again.

“You just have to hang on, battle, play every play and hope something happens,” Beamer said. “And dadgum, we got the fumble. It looked like it was going to be 14-0, and all of a sudden, we get a fumble and take it back the other way and tie it up. But you have to have kids that hang in there and battle and not give up.”

To put the fumble recovery into perspective, North Carolina had turned 30 of 37 red-zone opportunities into points (81.1 percent), with 28 of those resulting in a touchdown – 18 on the ground. Entering the night, they had committed just two turnovers in the red zone all season … that’s TWO turnovers – one fumble and one interception.

If not for the turnover, Tech could have been facing its largest first-quarter deficit of the season – 10 points at Wake Forest. But Exum’s strip and Hopkins’ recovery prevented that scenario.

“That was a big stop and a big turnover. They were down in the red zone, and we didn’t want them to score anymore,” Exum said. “At best, we wanted to hold them to three, but to get off the field was even better. We were just fortunate enough to get the turnover and get the ball back to our offense.

“Everyone was excited. A turnover like that in a situation with the ball placement, that was a big momentum switch for us.”

Exum, who was moved to rover for the game in a late-in-the-week decision, continued his strong play the rest of the night, finishing with a career-high 12 tackles, matching teammate Whitley – who tied his career-high – and UNC’s Tre Boston for game-high honors.

“This was really the first time I ever played rover in a game, so it was actually better than I thought it was going to be,” Exum said. “There was a lot of action over there. I was excited, and it was a fun game. I really liked it over there.”

Pitching a shutout over North Carolina’s next seven possessions – which included a pair of missed field goals – enabled Tech to slowly build what seemed like an insurmountable lead by the fourth quarter.

“We just study film so good, and during the week, knowing their routes, it was hard for their quarterback to get into a groove,” Whitley said. “We were just putting pressure on him, and we just did what we needed to do because we had the momentum already, and we were just having fun and playing well.”

The Tar Heels did make it interesting with a pair of touchdowns late in the game, but the Hokies were able to hold on for the victory.

“I thought we kind of got on them and had some things going, but you hate to see those long plays at the end,” Beamer said. “But I’m proud of our defense, and I hate to keep using it, but we just hung in there and battled, and we are a little bit short on personnel.”

The win gave Tech fans a dream-come-true scenario – a chance to face Virginia with a trip to the ACC championship game on the line (pending the Cavaliers’ outcome against Florida State on Saturday) and a shot at avenging its only loss of the season (Clemson) in the title tilt on Dec. 3.

“I’m proud of our team, and I’m proud of our coaches,” Beamer said. “We battled all year long, and it hasn’t been smooth, but we’ve found a way to win. And regardless what happens in the Virginia-Florida State game, that Virginia game is a big game for us.”

As it is, too, no matter the circumstances, for Hokie Nation.

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