Virginia Tech pulls off first major upset of 2021 college football season vs. No. 9 North Carolina


BLACKSBURG, Va. — Call it a resounding dud for North Carolina.

The ninth-ranked Tar Heels face-planted and fell 17-10 to Virginia Tech in Friday night’s season opener between the Atlantic Coast Conference football teams, in front of a packed house at Lane Stadium. North Carolina was greeted by a sea of orange-clad supporters as it arrived with high expectations for its third season under Mack Brown. UNC entered Friday with its highest preseason national ranking since 1997, and the status of preseason favorite to win the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Those expectations may have to be reset after this deflating night.

The fans stormed the field here after Virginia Tech defensive back Chamarri Conner’s interception of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell with 37 seconds remaining effectively ended the game.


Howell, the North Carolina star junior, was sacked six times and threw three interceptions, including the first fourth-quarter interception of his college career.

Hokies in the end zone quickly

Not much resistance from the Tar Heels defense on their first possession of the season. Virginia Tech QB Braxton Burmeister scored on a 4-yard keeper and the Hokies needed less than five minutes to get on the board (officially the drive lasted 4: 59).

North Carolina’s defense opened the season by allowing an 8-play, 75-yard scoring drive.

Halftime hole

North Carolina faced an uphill climb by halftime, with Virginia Tech leading 14-0. The Hokies converted six straight third-down chances to start the night, behind Burmeister (7 of 8 passing for 126 yards in the first half).

The Heisman Trophy campaign did not get off to a flying start for Howell. He went 4 of 8 passing for 58 yards in the first half, was sacked four times and fumbled once.

Record-setting score

Josh Downs got loose on 37-yard TD catch and run in the second half. UNC was finally on the board after more than two quarters. The Hokies led 14-7 in the third quarter.

The TD pass was the 69th of Howell’s UNC career, making him the school’s all-time leader.

No. 0 back-to-back

Back-to-back big plays by guys wearing No. UNC won 0 in the first quarter.

Defensive back Ja’Qurious Conley picked up a fumble recovery to derail a Virginia Tech drive inside the North Carolina 10-yard line. Then, UNC receiver Emery Simmons hauled in a 22-yard catch.

Sack snuffs out UNC drive

Virginia Tech defensive lineman Mario Kendricks dropped Howell for a 13-yard loss on third-and-7 at the Hokies’ 26, snuffing out what had been a promising UNC drive. The Tar Heels marched from their 9-yard line with Howell running back Ty Chandler moving them.

Adam Smith is a sports reporter for the Burlington Times-News and USA TODAY Network. You can reach him by email at or @adam_smithTN on Twitter.

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