Virginia Tech faithful gathered en masse for the first time in nearly two years Friday night, selling out Lane Stadium for a thunderous football revival that turned on the Hokies’ ravenous defense.
Yes, this season-opening, 17-10 conquest of No. 10 North Carolina was old school Tech football, the Hokies stalking and baiting an elite quarterback into atypical lapses, the crowd roaring at each.
At his nearby lake house, or wherever he’s spending this holiday weekend, Bud Foster undoubtedly was reveling.
“That was amazing,” Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister said of the defensive effort.
Here’s how amazing:
In 25 previous games with Sam Howell starting at quarterback, UNC had never scored fewer than two touchdowns. Moreover, Howell had never thrown more than two interceptions in a game.
Friday, the Tar Heels scored one touchdown, and Howell threw three picks.
Six Hokies combined for nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage, five combined for six sacks, and four contributed quarterback hurries, all making the extraordinary Howell look ordinary.
Remarkable what a defense and coaching staff not ravaged by COVID-19 can accomplish, isn’t it?
Surely you remember last season at Kenan Stadium — the Hokies certainly do — where Carolina gouged Tech for 656 yards, averaging nearly 10 per snap, in a 56-45 victory. Howell accounted for three passing touchdowns, but he wasn’t even the headliner as the Tar Heels rushed for 399 yards against a virus-depleted defense.
Running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, plus receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, exited that team, but UNC still has Howell, a seasoned offensive line and gifted receivers such as Josh Downs. They were no match for the Hokies.
“Our defense just continued to rise to the occasion with energy and execution,” Fuente said. “They looked fast.”
They looked fast at every level. Ends Amare Barno and TyJuan Garbutt, and even tackles Mario Kendricks, Norell Pollard and Jordan Williams chased down Howell and his backs. Linebackers Alan Tisdale and Dax Hollifield and a horde of defensive backs were everywhere.
Hollified, Chamarri Conner and Jermaine Waller intercepted passes. Armani Chatman owned one crucial series with a jarring tackle of D.J. Jones and a fourth-down pass breakup.
Justin Hamilton, starting his second season as defensive coordinator after the iconic Foster’s retirement, confused the Tar Heels with schemes that included using Barno as a spy. It was from that alignment that Kendricks recorded a 13-yard, third-down sack that knocked UNC out of field goal range early in the second quarter.
“Everybody did their job,” Waller said.
They needed to, for after Burmeister directed two early touchdowns drives, the Hokies managed only a 48-yard John Parker Romo field goal the remainder of the evening.
With Tech’s offense shuttered, it seemed inevitable that Howell would manufacture enough points. But feeding off the crowd, the defense held, and when Williams pressured Howell into a rushed pass that Conner intercepted with 37 seconds remaining, ’twas party time in Blacksburg.
Indeed, from “Enter Sandman” at 5:58 p.m., until the field-storming at 9:18, the scene was fire, the sellout of 65,632 more than double the 26,683 combined who saw the Hokies in their 11 games last year.
“I’ve never seen it like that,” Fuente said in his opening statement. “It was different. So much energy, so many festivities, so much loud music. It was awesome. Our fans were incredible. They played a huge role in the game, in my opinion.”
“I don’t think UNC could hear anything,” Burmeister said. “… We were on the goal line at one point, and I don’t think my O-line could hear me.”
Hokies fans know quite well not to overreact to openers. Tech overcame 0-2 starts in 1995 and 2010 to win conference championships. Conversely, after a dominant victory at No. 20 Florida State to start 2018, the Hokies cratered to their first losing season since 1992.
But there’s no escaping the trends that Tech defied Friday.
This was the program’s first victory over a top-10 opponent at home since 2009 against Miami. Then, from 2010 to 2020, the Hokies were 1-11 at Lane against ranked opponents, 12-14 on the road or at neutral venues, an inexplicable disparity.
Fuente couldn’t have scripted a more important win to open his sixth year, one that likely will decide his future in Blacksburg. And after a season in which they yielded their most points per game since 1973, the Hokies could not have prevailed in a more important fashion.
“As a defense, that’s really all you want,” Garbutt said. “You want the whole team counting on you. You walk with a lot of swagger when you can count on your defense.”