Virginia Tech didn’t appear to get much consideration when the experts tabbed No. 10 North Carolina and No. 14 Miami as the teams to beat in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division.
They will now.
Braxton Burmeister ran for a touchdown and threw for another and Virginia Tech made Sam Howell look pedestrian in a 17-10 victory over North Carolina on Friday night in the opener for both teams.
Burmeister scored on a 4-yard run and found James Mitchell for an 11-yard scoring strike as the Hokies built a 14-0 lead they took into halftime. The defense did the rest, sacking Howell six times and intercepting three passes.
“We kept putting them back out there in the second half,” Hokies coach Justin Fuente said about the defense, which allowed 354 yards. “We couldn’t put the game away but the defense continued to rise to the occasion.”
They struggled to put the game away in the second half until the final minute when they chased Howell from the pocket at the Virginia Tech 40 and he tried to find a teammate while defensive end Jordan Williams held him by an ankle.
Howell, who’d thrown eight touchdown passes in two prior games against Virginia Tech, whirled to get away, then threw right to Chamarri Conner.
The play was reviewed, and when the officials announced that it was an interception, the sellout crowd at Lane Stadium erupted with relief.
Many fans joined the team in celebration on the field after the game, which marked the first time since 2019 that fan attendance was not limited.
The Tar Heels, who arrived with their highest preseason ranking since 1997, had the ball for just 9:11 in the first half and only avoided being down by more because Keshaun King fumbled the ball away at the Tar Heels 9.
“Obviously, now the shine’s off and the rating sure doesn’t matter tonight,” Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said. “We were overrated with the way we played.”
The Hokies dominated the clock in the first half, slowing things down to avoid the kind of shootout they had with UNC last season. In that one, the Tar Heels rolled up 656 yards and beat a virus and injury decimated defense 56-45.
“When the clock was running, we just wanted it to keep running,” Fuente said.
Howell did become the Tar Heels’ career touchdown pass leader with 69 when Josh Downs took a screen pass 37 yards for a score in the third quarter, but he was unable to find his usual magic late.
Fuente said he thought Burmeister was trying to hit Tayvion Robinson in the back of the end zone on the touchdown pass, but Mitchell cut it off.
“I saw both of them,” Burmeister said, “and I was like one of them is going to catch it.”
North Carolina: The Tar Heels’ need to replace Howell’s top two targets from last season was hampered greatly by the play of the Hokies secondary, which often caused him to hold onto the ball for a long time. In one stretch, Howell was sacked on three consecutive plays after dropping back to pass.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies drove for two touchdowns and to the North Carolina 10 on their first three possessions, failing to score on the middle drive when King fumbled the ball away. They then played conservatively until Howell’s pass to Downs got the Tar Heels on the board at 14-7.
The Tar Heels’ ranking was their highest in the preseason since the 1997 team was No. 7, but they will surely tumble. The Hokies got no votes in the preseason, but are likely to at least get some consideration going forward,
The Tar Heels will be at home to face Georgia State on Saturday.
The Hokies remain at home and face Middle Tennessee on Saturday.