No. 10 North Carolina entered the season with its highest ranking since 1997, which also happened to be the last time Mack Brown coached in Chapel Hill. Apparently, no one told Virginia Tech. With a physical defense and a ground-and-pound approach, the Hokies upset the favored Tar Heels 17-10 for their first home win against a top-10 opponent since 2009.
This was a classic Virginia Tech rock fight. The Hokies mustered just 3.2 yards per rush and averaged fewer yards per play than the Tar Heels. In all, Virginia Tech finished with just 296 yards of offense -- 58 fewer than UNC. When the dust settled, though, there was no question that Virginia Tech was the better team.
Heisman hopeful quarterback Sam Howell struggled mightily, completing just 17-of-32 passes for 208 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Normally known for being a clutch fourth-quarter performer, Howell threw two picks in the final 15 minutes for the first time in his career.
Howell's mistakes were linked to Tech's physical defensive front. Tyjaun Garbutt and Amare Barno combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. On the other side of the ball, the Hokies did just enough offensively to keep UNC at arm's length. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister completed 12-of-19 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the first top-10 upset of the 2021 college football season.
1. UNC was out-muscled
You hear it from coaches all the time, but sometimes it's true. Virginia Tech was the more physical team and it showed in every phase of the game.
The Hokies sacked Howell six times, which surely contributed to his mistake-prone performance. The Tar Heels couldn't run the ball, either. More than 20% of UNC's 146 yards rushing came on a meaningless 29-yard scamper as the first half expired. With all five offensive line starters back, it was a pitiful performance in the trenches.
Virginia Tech itself was far from efficient offensively, but at least its physical consistency was unmatched. Four of the Hokies' drives went more than eight plays, including a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. Coach Justin Fuente knew he could grind out drives and bleed the clock -- which he did by winning the time of possession battle.
Big passes and explosive plays are cool, but there's a beauty in a team going out there and physically beating up what's supposed to be a more talented team.
2. Braxton Burmeister has found his home
When Burmeister was a blue-chip recruit for Oregon out of California, who would have thought he would find his place in Blacksburg, Virginia, of all places.
But on a night when Howell was supposed to be the story of the night, Burmeister shined. His stats were somewhat pedestrian, and he missed some easy throws, but he also made some great ones, too. A 34-yard dime helped set up one of Virginia Tech's only two touchdowns on the night. Then, he launched an 11-yard bullet to James Mitchell to give the Hokies a 14-0 lead. If not for instant replay, he would have had another perfectly thrown touchdown to add to his highlight reel.
Burmeister got it done on the ground, too, leading the Hokies with 53 hard-earned rushing yards and a touchdown. Don't expect Burmeister to ever look like an All-American in this offense, but he provides everything Fuente needs from him in this offense. If Virginia Tech has a rebound year, Burmeister will be a huge reason why.
3. UNC's receivers are an issue
Most of the Tar Heels' struggles came down to protection issues. But outside of a few big plays from Josh Downs, UNC's receivers weren't much to write home about.
Downs caught eight passes for 123 yards – several of which came from behind the line of scrimmage. No other UNC receiver caught more than three passes. Only two receivers had more than 20 yards. Virginia Tech's defenders played physical man coverage against UNC's receivers and they struggled to respond.
Howell is a great quarterback, but North Carolina looked like a team that lost its top four receivers to the NFL Draft. He needs some help besides Downs if the Tar Heels are going to claw their way back into ACC Coastal contention.
4. Justin Fuente isn't going down without a fight
Few ACC coaches entered the 2021 season on a warmer seat than Fuente. One game in, however, and Virginia Tech is starting to look like Fuente's original vision for the program. The offense was nothing special, but it was perfectly called and ruthlessly efficient. The "lunch pail" culture of physicality that Virginia Tech has been so well known for seemed to return on Friday night, at least for one game.
Last season, Virginia Tech's 27-year bowl streak that dated back to Frank Beamer's seventh season in 1993 was snapped. If this highly anticipated season-opener was any indication, expect the Hokies back in a bowl soon.