Even with the defeats, even with the injuries, North Carolina’s effort could rarely be questioned amid its most difficult season in more than a decade. That changed here on Saturday, though, sometime during what had to be one of the worst first halves in school history.
The Tar Heels on Saturday endured a 59-7 defeat against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium. They lost in humiliating, sad fashion, and along the way seemed to lose their spirit and their will, too. UNC has four more games remaining, but it played for long stretches on Saturday like a team content to end its season here and now.
By halftime, the Hokies (6-1, 2-1 ACC) led 35-0. They held that overwhelming lead despite generating a modest 211 yards of offense during the first two quarters. Virginia Tech, though, didn’t often need things like “yards” and “first downs” – not while scoring two defensive touchdowns, and another on special teams.
UNC’s defense, which had indeed shown improvement in recent weeks, held the Hokies scoreless on their first three possessions. When the Hokies lined up for their fourth offensive series, though, they already led by two touchdowns.
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The first of those was a 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown, which came after Chazz Surratt, the Tar Heels’ second-year freshman quarterback, eluded one defender only to spin away and lose his grip while he attempted to pass. It didn’t get any better, neither for Surratt nor for his team.
Surratt, for one, attempted to run the Tar Heels’ offense while simultaneously attempting to dodge fast, agile 280-pound men. It did not go well for Surratt, who left the game in the first quarter with an apparent knee injury, only to return in the third quarter with UNC (1-7, 0-5) trailing 45-0.
After Surratt’s early fumble, UNC’s next drive ended with a punt. And what a booming punt it was – 56 yards in the air, all the way to the Hokies’ 9-yard line. There, Greg Stroman fielded it, made a move up the field and didn’t stop running until he’d scored on a 91-yard touchdown.
UNC didn’t collapse then, at least. No, that came later.
The exact moment is difficult to pinpoint, but another turnover, and another Virginia Tech defensive touchdown, deflated the Tar Heels to such a degree that they seemed to surrender, resigned to their fate. They trailed 21-0 at the time, late in the second quarter, when Reggie Floyd intercepted a pass thrown by Brandon Harris, whom UNC turned to after Surratt could withstand the punishment no longer.
Floyd received an escort down the left sideline and scored on a 69-yard interception return. In his wake, he ran past, or farther way from, several UNC defensive players who didn’t appear interested in attempting to run Floyd down. They instead chose to be spectators to the carnage.
It only continued. UNC went three-and-out on its next possession, leaving the Hokies enough time to score before halftime. Which they did, on an 8-yard pass with five seconds remaining in the first half. And so that’s how Virginia Tech built a 35-0 halftime lead.
The Tar Heels went into their locker room with that ghastly margin a little less than two years after it had been home to one of their most jubilant celebrations. In 2015, UNC clinched the ACC’s Coastal Division with a dramatic overtime victory at Virginia Tech.
But now the Tar Heels have lost 10 consecutive games against major-conference opponents. The defeat on Saturday happened to be UNC’s most lopsided under coach Larry Fedora.
There will be no postseason game this season, no winning record. In two years, UNC has gone from the best team in its division to, for now, what looks like the worst.
The 35-0 halftime margin was UNC’s largest halftime deficit since it trailed Clemson by the same score in 2006, and it was a score that rendered moot, at least for the purposes of the outcome, anything that came after. Not that anything improved for UNC.
To the contrary, nothing improved. UNC received the kickoff to start the second half, and Harris threw an interception moments later. He threw it directly to Hokies linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka, who returned it to the UNC 15-yard line. Virginia Tech soon scored another touchdown.
And soon after that, Justin Fuente, the Virginia Tech head coach, decided to put in some of his reserves. There were still more than eight minutes left in the third quarter, and the Hokies at the time held a 45-0 lead that continued to grow.
The game became so out of hand that Lane Stadium, home to one of the fiercest home-field advantages in the ACC, began to empty midway through the third quarter. By the merciful conclusion, the place was mostly empty. Virginia Tech supporters, apparently, had long grown bored. They managed to remain interested longer than the Tar Heels did, at least.