CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After seeing his defense give up early scores Saturday and get behind in the first quarter for the sixth time this season, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's mind started churning, searching for the adjustments that would pave the way to an eighth consecutive win.
The answers came to Foster. Tech made the rest of North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates' afternoon awfully uncomfortable on the way to a 26-10 victory. Tech's secondary forced Yates to throw four interceptions and neutralized big-play threat Dwight Jones, while quarterback Tyrod Taylor utilized a seldom-spotlighted receiver of his own in Marcus Davis.
What is it about the approach of Tech's defensive backs that have made them some of the primary reasons No. 16 Tech (8-2 overall, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) is a win next Saturday at Miami away from locking up the ACC's Coastal Division crown and a spot in the ACC championship game?
"Don't be scared," said cornerback Jayron Hosley, who had two interceptions to increase his season total to an ACC-best seven. "Don't play afraid."
Nothing in the way Tech's defense played in the second half against UNC (6-4, 3-3), when it limited the Tar Heels to 97 yards, suggested anything remotely timid about Foster's group.
UNC's offense should've provided one of the biggest challenges Tech's defense would face all season. Yates came into the game as the ACC's most accurate passer (66 percent completions) and had thrown just four interceptions all season. Tech made Yates look positively average, as he completed 18 of 33 passes for 197 yards and doubled his interception total.
After the opening drive of the game, in which UNC went 80 yards in eight plays and gained a 7-0 advantage on a 1-yard touchdown run by Anthony Elzy, UNC never looked the same.
Elzy had 139 yards total offense in the first half (65 rushing and 74 receiving), but he gained just 45 more yards in the second half. Jones, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound wide receiver who had 612 yards receiving combined in his four previous games, was held to one catch for four yards.
In its final 11 possessions, UNC scored on a field goal, turned the ball over six times and punted three times. Tech's six takeaways were one more than it had combined in its previous four games.
While Tech's defense kept UNC's most dangerous offensive players under wraps, Taylor exploited a new target in the absence of receiver Dyrell Roberts (out with compartment syndrome in his left thigh) and running back David Wilson (out with mononucleosis).
Davis had four catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Though Taylor was only 13 of 28 passing for 249 yards, his touchdown passes of 11 and 13 yards to Davis in the third quarter came on critical third-and-10 and third-and-7 plays, respectively.
"Tyrod gives you a lot of confidence that he's going to do the right thing with the ball," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "It makes play-calling a lot easier when you've got a quarterback like that."
UNC didn't pressure Taylor for much of the game, daring him to beat them with his arm. He did just that when he needed to come up with a big play.
"I love those challenges," said Taylor, a Hampton High graduate. "When people challenge me to throw the football to win, that's what I love. That's what I came here to do."
Two of Tech's takeaways helped swing momentum in a big way. With Tech trailing 10-6 in the second quarter, Yates dropped back on first-and-10 from UNC's 27-yard line and fired a deep pass to receiver Erik Highsmith.
Free safety Eddie Whitley wrestled the ball away from Highsmith in the end zone for the first interception of Whitley's career. Tech went on to convert the turnover into three points on a 26-yard field goal with 3:37 left in the half by Chris Hazley, one of four field goals from Hazley in the game.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Tech was up 26-10 when UNC got deep inside the Hokies' red zone. On first-and-goal from Tech's 2, Elzy was hit near the goal line by linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, causing Elzy to fumble the ball out of the end zone for a touchback. Tech took over with 7:29 remaining, and UNC never again got inside the Hokies' 45.
"After the first drive, we really settled down and I thought we played very good football after that defensively," Foster said. "That's a credit to our kids and them hanging in there. Some of the things we did schematic-wise were based on certain formations and certain ways they looked. We weren't getting that communicated (early) and they had some success. We got that settled down and made sure (the defensive players) knew what they were seeing."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times