Eddie Whitley was hopelessly beaten, more than 10 yards behind the ACC's hottest receiver.
Touchdown. Seventy yards. Virginia Tech trails by double figures midway through the second quarter.
But North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates overthrew Dwight Jones badly as Whitley and Hokies faithful exhaled.
"I felt lucky," Whitley said.
Six plays later, Carolina's Erik Highsmith ran another post route. This time Whitley was ready.
This time he made Virginia Tech's defensive play of the year and may have rescued their season.
Whitley's grip-and-rip pick in the end zone, confirmed by replay, saved a touchdown and ignited the Hokies' finest performance of 2010.
After a shaky start, Tech smothered North Carolina 26-10, forcing six turnovers, committing none and seizing the ACC's Coastal Division by the throat.
Win either of their next two games, at Miami or home against Virginia, and the Hokies (8-2, 6-0 ACC) head to the conference championship game Dec. 4 in Charlotte, N.C.
Defeat Saturday would have created win-or-else pressure for Tech at Miami, and defeat would have been likely had Highsmith held onto Yates' 27-yard laser and given North Carolina a 17-6 lead with 7:37 remaining before halftime.
But Whitley, a junior free safety, wrestled the ball away from Highsmith in mid-air in the back of the end zone for his first career interception.
"He did a post, and I played my man," Whitley said. "I saw his hands go in the air, and I just tried to rip it out."
Officials wasted little time in ruling an interception, and the inevitable replay-booth review was equally quick.
"I think that was a gigantic pick, and a great play by him," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "Two guys go up and he comes down, but that's battling, just battling for the ball. I think that was a key, key play in the ballgame. When it happened, I said 'That's the one we need right there.' I think it turned out that way a little bit."
A little bit? Yeah, and pitching had a "little bit" to do with the Giants' World Series victory.
The Hokies promptly drove to Chris Hazley's third of four field goals to draw within 10-9 at intermission. They followed with their most dominant quarter, a 17-0 whitewash in which they outgained the Tar Heels 141-19.
UNC's Yates, fresh off a school-record 439 yards passing at Florida State, entered the game with 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He exited with 15 and eight as Whitley, Davon Morgan and Jayron Hosley (twice) picked him off.
Jones entered the game with 28 catches for 612 yards in his last four games, including 233 yards against Florida State. Saturday he had one meaningless garbage-time reception for 4 yards.
Credit Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Credit boundary cornerback Rashad Carmichael, who shadowed Jones much of the day.
"That was a big thing for us all week, stopping eight-three." Whitley said, referring to Jones by his jersey number.
The only time Jones saw daylight was on the play he abused Whitley but saw the ball sail over his head.
"We were in man-to-man, and there was a four-man rush, no blitz," Whitley said, "and that's hard for any DB."
Tech's defensive backs are playing lights-out. Yates is the seventh consecutive quarterback to complete less than 50 percent of his passes against the Hokies, who lead the nation in completion-percentage defense at 48.3 and who sacked Yates four times, two by freshman end James Gayle from Bethel High.
Similarly, Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor connected on fewer than half his throws, 13 of 28, his first time under 50 percent this season. But he had no interceptions and averaged a sterling 19.2 yards per completion — Marcus Davis, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale had catches of 40-plus yards.
Add Hazley's 17 consecutive field goals to the recipe and you have a squad that's won eight consecutive games and is 6-0 in the ACC for the first time since joining the conference in 2004.
"I think we're getting to be a really good football team," Beamer said.
No argument here.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun