The film has been tough to watch, Michael Brewer said. He’s always taken pride in protecting the football, but for the past four weeks, Brewer has fed a steady dose of wayward passes to Virginia Tech’s opposition, and the results have been ugly.
Four games, nine picks, two losses.
“That’s on me, and I’ve got to understand that when you have a defense like [ours], it's OK to go three-and-out or take a sack,” Brewer said. “I have to get better in that aspect of the game.”
At North Carolina, the tape from the last two games should probably just be burned. The Tar Heels’ secondary has been a mess, and ECU and Clemson combined for 882 passing yards, 10 passing touchdowns and 120 total points against them.
Larry Fedora has watched the film, and there’s really not much left to say.
"Believe it or not, we don’t have defensive schemes where you turn a guy loose,” Fedora said. “But it may look like it."
And so it’s come to this for Virginia Tech and North Carolina: A date Saturday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that just six weeks into the season ostensibly serves as an elimination game in the crowded Coastal Division for two teams that dropped their ACC openers and are reeling from self-inflicted wounds.
Brewer’s 10 interceptions are tied for the most by any QB in the nation, and the opposition has scored 43 points off his turnovers.
“The frustrating part is that’s always been one of the best parts of my game is protecting the football, and it just hasn’t happened this year,” he said.
North Carolina has allowed at least 50 points and 500 yards in consecutive games. Only one other ACC team in the last decade has done that.
“Those are just mental mistakes,” Fedora said of the defensive lapses. “They’re base things. They weren’t something that was exotic that we put in for that game. They're just basic mental mistakes.”
It’s Virginia Tech’s resistible force vs. North Carolina’s movable object.
But perhaps it’s not all so bad.
The Hokies did topple Ohio State on the road just three weeks ago, back when it seemed they might be a dark horse for the College Football Playoff. Even in spite of Brewer’s turnovers, Virginia Tech was tied or ahead in the final minutes of both games it eventually lost.
More importantly, perhaps, Brewer’s offensive weapons are incredibly young and still improving. Freshmen account for 59 percent of Tech’s receiving yardage and 71 percent of its rushing. Even Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, just arrived on campus this summer.
In other words, there were bound to be growing pains.
“There’s a lot of young guys playing out there, a lot of new faces on the offense,” Brewer said. “We knew there’d be ups and downs coming in. But we feel at this point, we’re far enough along that we should be out there producing on a consistent basis and translating those into wins. It’s time to step up and the learning process is over.”
For the Tar Heels, it’s clear where the learning process remains ongoing.
UNC’s offense has averaged 41 points per game, tops in the ACC. Against Clemson, the defensive front was solid. The Tigers’ run game allowed just 92 yards on 44 carries, making the case that the big boys in the trenches did their job. The back end, however, has been boom or bust -- and mostly bust. Carolina’s seven interceptions rank tied for sixth among all Power 5 teams, but the Heels have also allowed 8.7 yards per pass, 353 passing yards per game and 17 passing plays of 25 yards or more -- all dead last among Power 5 teams.
"I think as a group as a unit, as a front seven, we did what we were supposed to do, we stopped the run,” tackle Ethan Farmer said. “We’ve just got to get better in the secondary."
Maybe Brewer does North Carolina a few favors Saturday. If he throws multiple interceptions, he’ll be just the fifth quarterback in the last decade to do so in five straight games.
Or maybe a date with the beleaguered Heels is just what Brewer needs to right the ship. UNC risks becoming just the second ACC team in the last decade to allow 500 yards in four straight games.
For one team, there’s a strong chance that Saturday marks its last flicker of hope in the Coastal Division. For the other, September’s struggles could finally begin to fade.
It’s not the matchup of the ACC’s best this weekend, but it’s a huge game for both sides.
“At this point,” Brewer said, “every game we feel like is a must-win.”