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Virginia Tech football: Struggling Tar Heels make visit to Lane Stadium – Roanoke Times

BLACKSBURG — A little over a year ago, an unproven Virginia Tech squad that had just sneaked into the Top 25 went on the road for the first time under Justin Fuente and dominated a rain-soaked game against then-No. 17 North Carolina, quarterbacked by eventual NFL first-round pick Mitch Trubisky.

It announced the Hokies’ resurgence as an ACC contender. The contest was the potential launch of a high-stakes rivalry between the Coast Division’s old and new guard, an annual battle for the right to go the league championship game.

About that …

When North Carolina (1-6, 0-4 ACC) visits No. 14 Virginia Tech (5-1, 1-1) on Saturday at Lane Stadium, it’ll be a matchup instead of two teams heading in vastly different directions.

The Hokies, whose only loss so far was to defending national champion Clemson , have met expectations at the season’s midway point. They have the ACC’s passing efficiency leader (Josh Jackson), second-leading receiver (Cam Phillips), an offense averaging 33.3 points per game, a defense that’s notched two shutouts and is giving up only 13.7 points per contest and solid special teams .

Granted, there are areas for improvement. The Hokies’ ground game (4.0 yards per carry) has been inconsistent, the defense hasn’t been quite as potentially disruptive (12 sacks, 4 interceptions) and kicker Joey Slye’s up and downs have been concerning.

That’s why head coach Justin Fuente isn’t satisfied with his team, especially relative to the rest of the division.

“Well, I just don’t think there’s a nickel’s worth of difference from the top to the bottom right now,” he said. “When I watch the crossover film I think anybody can beat anybody on any given day. I think it’s going to be tough, hard grind for anyone to make it all the way through.”

Saturday’s game against the Tar Heels might be an exception. Already facing an uphill battle after losing Trubisky, receiver Ryan Switzer, running back Elijah Hood and others to the pros, UNC has been ravaged by injuries. Its latest injury report lists 21 players either out for the season or expected to miss this week’s game. Eight of those startered in the season opener against Cal.

In addition to No. 14 Tech, UNC still has ACC games against No. 8 Miami, Pitt and No. 16 N.C. State. An 0-8 mark in league play has become a distinct possibility, only two years removed from the Tar Heels’ 8-0 record in 2015 on the way to their first Coastal Division title.

Besides two technically speaking 0-4 seasons in the ACC in 2008 and ’09 — the Tar Heels vacated four league wins each season because of NCAA violations, so that’s how it appears in the record books — UNC hasn’t gone winless in league play since 1989, when Mack Brown went 1-10 overall in his second season at Chapel Hill.

“You don’t have to like it,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said of this year’s struggles. “You know, there’s nothing that I like about it. We talk about adversity all the time as a football team, and overcoming adversity is one of the most important things you can do. You’re going to face adversity in every game and in your life and everything. …

“We have a sound philosophy that’s a proven philosophy and we don’t start grabbing things here and there just because somebody thinks that you ought to change something. So we stick with what we do and what we believe in, and we continue to work and we keep a positive attitude.”

That could be tough to do, especially Saturday, certainly with a quarterback situation that’s less than ideal. After freshman Chazz Surratt (1,167 yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) started five straight games, Fedora went back to opening game starter Brandon Harris, a grad transfer from LSU. Harris responded by going 7-for-18 for only 46 yards and three interceptions in a 20-14 loss to UVa last week.

Against a Virginia Tech defense that’s allowing opponents to complete only 43.8 percent of their passes in Lane Stadium, with one touchdown to two interceptions, it could be a long afternoon for the Tar Heels. That’s a far cry from their last trip to Blacksburg, when they spoiled Frank Beamer’s final home game with a 30-27 overtime victory.

Still, the Hokies, who enter as 21-point favorites, the fifth time this year they’ve been favored by at least two touchdowns, aren’t taking anything for granted.

“The one thing we cannot do is ever be satisfied,” Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I think that’s the one thing you see with this group. They’re not.

“As we move forward, each week is a critical ballgame. It starts this week, obviously, with North Carolina, but these games these next six weeks have usually been very tight, hard-fought, close football games, and the margin of error is very minimal.”

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