North Carolina enjoyed an offseason filled with dark horse playoff buzz, but Virginia Tech upended those aspirations from the opening kickoff Friday night, finishing with a 17-10 win in front of a raucous Lane Stadium crowd in Blacksburg, Virginia.
"Obviously the shine's off," UNC coach Mack Brown said of the 10th-ranked Tar Heels. "The ratings mean nothing at this point. We were overrated tonight."
Brown said he expected a tenacious attack from the Hokies but was disappointed by how his team responded.
Virginia Tech went 75 yards for a touchdown on its opening drive, fumbled after a 56-yard drive and scored again on its third drive to go up 14-0. Meanwhile, the Hokies' defense utterly flustered Sam Howell and the Tar Heels' offense throughout the first half and made a series of big plays down the final stretch to secure the win.
"We kept putting them back out there in the second half," Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. "We couldn't put the game away and the defense continued to rise to the occasion. It was as impressive a performance as I've seen. It was incredible. To continue to answer the bell in the second half, it was really impressive."
UNC lost four stars on offense from last season -- tailbacks Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, and receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome -- but Brown had offered enthusiasm for the next group of skill position players. Instead, the Tar Heels saw repeated miscues from their receivers and tight end, and the offensive line -- thought to be a strength -- struggled in the face of an unrelenting Virginia Tech pass rush.
Brown said he learned a bit about who might be ready to play at a high level but expressed disappointment that his line didn't give Howell, a preseason Heisman Trophy contender, a chance to make many plays.
"When you don't run the ball well and you have six sacks and you have to run for your life," Brown said, "we have to do a better job of protecting him. You can't expect a guy to have a great game when he's got people around him the whole game. You've got to protect your quarterback."
Howell finished 17-of-32 for 208 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Josh Downs had 123 yards and a TD, but the rest of the receiving corps struggled to get open downfield. UNC was without veterans Beau Corrales and Khafre Brown in the game.
Howell said afterward that the loss shouldn't upend North Carolina's expectations for the season, but he conceded the team did not play well.
"We can't let this game define us," Howell said. "We know what this team is capable of, even if we didn't show it tonight. I think we just got beat [tonight]. I don't think the pressure really bothered anybody in the program and we had a good week of practice, and we just weren't the better team."
UNC has lost 11 games since Brown returned prior to the 2019 season. This was the ninth loss by a touchdown or less.
On the other side of the field, Virginia Tech shrugged off an offseason of questions and hot-seat rumors surrounding Fuente to turn in a dynamic performance.
QB Braxton Burmeister completed 12-of-19 passes with a TD and ran for 53 more yards and a score. The Hokies' defense was exceptional, finishing with six sacks and three interceptions, including a nifty pick on Howell's final throw by Chamarri Conner to seal the win.
For Fuente, it was a statement win. Virginia Tech missed a bowl game for the first time since 1992, and before the Hokies knocked off rival Virginia to end last season, Fuente appeared on the precipice of losing his job. Instead, athletic director Whit Babcock decided to retain Fuente, but in a postseason news conference, presented a series of items he needed to see for Fuente to remain with the program beyond 2021.
Friday's win offered a firm rebuttal to a fan base that was hoping to see a change made.
"For a game nobody thought we could win, for a group most people had given up on, to play like that really makes me proud," Fuente said.