It was the rollicking atmosphere that had been absent last season in this football-starved corner of southwest Virginia during the coronavirus pandemic. The Hokies' faithful, more than 60,000 strong, were eager to reclaim it, arriving hours before kickoff to celebrate being together again for the season opener against 10th-ranked North Carolina.
On the field, the Hokies provided their famously energetic crowd plenty for which to cheer in a 17-10 victory behind a defensive uprising that included six sacks at the expense of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, who also threw a career-high three interceptions.
"Wow, what a crowd," Hokies Coach Justin Fuente said. "I've never seen it like that. 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."
The defense sealed the outcome when cornerback Chamarri Conner intercepted Howell, juggling the ball and getting his hand underneath it as he fell to the turf with 37 seconds to go. It was the first fourth-quarter interception of Howell's UNC career.
No sack was more impactful than TyJuan Garbutt's on third and four with the Tar Heels at the Virginia Tech 10 late in the fourth quarter. North Carolina was seeking to trim the deficit to seven but instead had to settle for Grayson Atkins's 31-yard field goal with 5:53 to play to make it 17-10.
Players stormed the field at the final whistle, raising their arms and displaying their white helmets emblazoned with the "VT" logo, validating for at least a night Athletic Director Whit Babcock's decision to bring back Fuente even after two losing seasons over the past three.
Fuente enters this pivotal season having given a ringing endorsement to starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister. The Oregon transfer validated Fuente's confidence by amassing 211 total yards and two touchdowns, both of which came on first-half drives.
"I'm awfully proud of this football team," Fuente said. "How they prepared all through fall camp for a game nobody thought we could win."
Virginia Tech limited the Tar Heels to 2 for 10 on third down and possessed the ball for 10 more minutes, keeping one of the most potent offenses in the county last season on the sideline for extended stretches. North Carolina, which has back its entire starting offensive line, led the ACC in total offense (537.3) last year and was second in scoring offense (41.7).
Conner led the charge with eight tackles, and cornerback Jermaine Waller, a District native, had seven tackles and an interception. Garbutt added two sacks and five tackles for a defense that surrendered its fewest points since Nov. 16, 2019, in a 45-0 win against Georgia Tech.
Last season, the Hokies finished 12th out of 15 teams in the ACC in total defense (447.5 yards) and never allowed fewer than 14 points.
"It meant a lot," Waller said of the defense's performance. "We've been going through a lot of stuff since last year. Just all the work we put in, it just meant a lot. Everybody did their job. Everybody stuck together. It wasn't easy. You've just got to be the tougher team."
The Tar Heels drew within 14-7 late in the third quarter when Howell completed a 37-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Josh Downs on a tunnel screen. It marked the 69th career touchdown pass for the junior widely regarded as one of the top players at his position in the country.
But Virginia Tech answered with a career-long 48-yard field goal from John Parker Romo with 14:18 remaining, pushing the margin to 17-7.
Burmeister had summoned poise, accuracy and arm strength during the Hokies' second touchdown drive, which ended with an 11-yard strike on third and goal to tight end James Mitchell in the back of the end zone. Mitchell adjusted his route when Burmeister encountered pressure and got behind cornerback Kyle McMichael.
Burmeister delivered the throw across his body while on the move to the right, fitting the ball into a tight window, to cap a 12-play, 80-yard possession with 3:07 left in the first half. The drive featured three third-down conversions, the first on an 18-yard pass from Burmeister to Raheem Blackshear on third and 13.
Later in the drive, on second and 14, Burmeister completed a pass to Tre Turner for 34 yards to the right sideline, deftly dropping the ball into the junior's hands and millimeters beyond the outstretched arm of McMichael, who had tight coverage.
The Hokies opened the scoring with Burmeister's 4-yard touchdown run on second and goal five minutes into the first quarter. Burmeister scampered untouched through the middle of the line of scrimmage for the sixth rushing touchdown of his career and third with Virginia Tech.
"I just think we need to go 1-0 each week, and I'm happy we got this win," Burmeister said.
Published : September 04, 2021