BLACKSBURG, Va. — Just when it looked like North Carolina's experience on Thursday night was not only the worst kind of rerun but a series headed for cancellation, the Tar Heels did something they couldn't do a week ago.
Instead of retreating, they regrouped. Instead of folding, they fought. Instead of another dismal loss on national television, they posted one of the biggest wins of Butch Davis' tenure, knocking off Virginia Tech 20-17 on a Casey Barth field goal with no time left on the clock.
T.J. Yates took as much heat as anyone for what happened last week in the Tar Heels' 30-27 loss to Florida State. If there was redemption to be sought, he found it.
He not only threw two touchdown passes Thursday, he made up for a crucial fourth-quarter blunder by leading the Tar Heels down the field on a 16-play, nine-minute drive to tie the score.
When Barth hit the game-winning field goal, Yates was ahead of the pack storming onto the field, making it to the 50-yard-line before he finally stopped.
"He's just been under a lot of criticism, and there's a famous quote: 'That's my quarterback,' " Tar Heels wide receiver Greg Little said.
"And just to have him step up and battle some adversity earlier in the game and battle some adversity the whole season, just the way he played today, that's what a leader's got to do. He's got to withstand anything that comes his way."
Yates hadn't thrown two touchdown passes in a game since the Tar Heels beat East Carolina on Sept. 19.
He hit Jheranie Boyd late in the second quarter for the game's first points, then answered a Virginia Tech scoring drive in the third quarter by lofting the ball into the back corner of the end zone for Little.
That might have put the Tar Heels ahead for good, but after the Heels held Virginia Tech to a field goal, Yates made a crucial mistake.
In the face of swarming pressure, he tried a no-look swing pass to Little that the Hokies picked off on North Carolina's 10-yard-line.
Moments later, Virginia Tech was up 17-14, and the Tar Heels were facing another second-half collapse.
The loss might have fallen on Yates' shoulders. Instead, the win will.
Yates led North Carolina down the field, hitting Little for a 19-yard gain as the Heels went for it on fourth-and-7 in Virginia Tech territory with 51/2 minutes to play.
That led to Barth's game-tying field goal and put the Tar Heels in position to win when Ryan Williams fumbled deep in Virginia Tech territory with two minutes to go.
Yates finished with only 131 passing yards, but he made the throws he needed to make when he needed to make them, and he gave North Carolina's defense the points it needed to win.
"I thought it was his best performance," Davis said.
It's also worth noting just how well the UNC defense played, particularly in the first half.
Virginia Tech continually threatened, making deeper and deeper forays into North Carolina territory, but the Heels held strong, stopping the Hokies three times on third down and twice on fourth down.
Perhaps most significantly, when the situation started to turn sour in the third quarter, the Heels regrouped instead of retreating.
There were other, more impressive, individual efforts for the Tar Heels, from defensive end E.J. Wilson to the combined play of maligned running backs Ryan Houston, Little and Shaun Draughn.
But to whatever degree Yates had held the Tar Heels back in their three straight ACC losses, he pushed them forward Thursday night.
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