Virginia Tech's worst defensive effort in 71 ACC games dropped the Hokies into their deepest midseason hole in 20 years.
Moving the ball at will over the final three-plus quarters Saturday, North Carolina throttled Tech 48-34 at Kenan Stadium.
"I never thought we'd be considered an average team by any means," cornerback Antone Exum said.
Average might be generous. Tech (3-3, 1-1) has lost three of its last four games. Moreover, a veteran defense that ranked seventh nationally last season appears lost.
Tar Heels sophomore Giovani Bernard rushed for 262 yards, the most ever by an individual against the Hokies. Ten of his runs gained at least 10 yards and two went for 50-plus.
Fueled by first-year coach Larry Fedora's no-huddle attack, North Carolina scored 10 more points than Tech had ever allowed in an ACC game.
"Giovani's a great back," Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said, "(but) we helped him be a little better today."
The defensive collapse came on an afternoon when Tech finally broke out of its first-quarter funk. The Hokies scored two first-period touchdowns, matching their total from the five previous games, and Logan Thomas finished with a career-best 354 yards passing.
But Thomas and Co., could not keep pace with the Tar Heels, whose 339 yards rushing were the most by an opponent not running the triple option in Frank Beamer's 26 seasons as head coach.
"Breakdown here, breakdown there," Beamer said. "Some good by them, some bad by us."
Breakdowns in every phase. Glaring breakdowns.
After Thomas capped Tech's opening drive with a 13-yard touchdown run, Carolina's Sean Tapley returned the kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, the first such score against the Hokies since 1993, the longest active streak in the Bowl Subdivision.
On the first play of the second quarter, after Tech had stuffed Bryn Renner's third-and-1 quarterback sneak, Bernard sprinted 62 yards untouched off left tackle to break a 14-all tie.
"They just came in crashing," Bernard said of Tech's defense. "They were expecting (another) QB sneak."
Indeed, after netting zero yards on their first three possessions (nine snaps), the Heels drove 59, 86 and 76 yards for touchdowns on their next three series.
"When we do what we're supposed to do and everybody does their job, we can be a dominant defense," Exum said. "We just have to learn how to do it for four quarters."
The offense contributed to the carnage early in third quarter when Carolina linebacker Travis Hughes, a graduate of Virginia Beach's Kempsville High, wrestled the ball away from tailback Michael Holmes at the Hokies' 45.
Four plays later, Renner hit Tapley for 19 yards, a touchdown and 35-20 lead.
Tech scored two more long-distance touchdowns, on Demitri Knowles' 93-yard kickoff return and Thomas' 66-yard rainbow to Corey Fuller. But again, the defense could not oblige.
"The game plan went just as we expected," Thomas said. "We moved the ball from the very first series until the end of the game. … (But) a shootout is a shootout and you have to keep pace."
The 34 points are the most Tech has scored in defeat since a 52-49 loss to Cal and Aaron Rodgers in the 2003 Insight Bowl.
For all of Thomas' success passing — Fuller and Knowles combined for 226 yards receiving — the Hokies continued to struggle on the ground. Tech rushed for a paltry 40 yards on 25 attempts, its fewest since the 2007 opener against East Carolina (33 yards).
The total was skewed by a 19-yard loss on a bad shotgun snap, and an 11-yard sack of Thomas, but that doesn't excuse tailbacks Holmes, J.C. Coleman and Martin Scales combining for 32 yards on 16 carries.
"I don't think it's time for excuses," Beamer said. "I think it's time for results. … We can still figure in on the conference championship. We still have something to play for, and that's what we have to go on."
But after splitting its first six games, Tech has its worst midseason record since 1992. The Hokies finished 2-8-1 that year, the last time they failed to make a bowl.
"We've got to play well," Foster said, "just to make a bowl game."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun