North Carolina's football team has learned some hard lessons on the field thus far in the 2007 season, and with Virginia Tech laying in waiting for the Tar Heels in Blacksburg this week, another opportunity is in place for the team to continue learning what it takes to become a consistent winner.
"Every week is an opportunity for us. It's a revelation about our football team. It's an opportunity for us to get better," said UNC head coach Butch Davis. "This week is an enormous challenge, and I know it sounds like you say that every week, but for our football team at this stage of this program, every week is a challenge. It's a two-headed sword. One, it's for us to get better at the areas where we need to dramatically get better and to improve, and the other is the challenge of the opponent."
Despite a blowout loss on the road at LSU, Virginia Tech is still widely considered one of the favorites in the ACC Coastal Division. The Hokies, who enter the game with a 3-1 record, have won two straight home games since the loss in Baton Rouge, while implementing freshman Tyrod Taylor into the lineup at quarterback.
"Without question this is going to be the best football team that we've seen thus far this season and probably one of the more talented teams in the entire country," said Davis. "It's a very, very experienced football team. When you look at their defense, they have six seniors starting. They have three juniors, which means this is their fourth year of school, and one sophomore. It is a veteran experienced defense that has been in this system. They understand the system. They know how the system works."
"They've made a slight change at quarterback from probably their existing plan at the start of the season, when they thought they were going to go in one direction, and now they are going with Tyrod Taylor, which kind of brings back illusions to the idea of the Michael Vick, Marcus Vick," Davis added. "He (Taylor) is a tremendous athlete. They were really struggling offensively at the LSU game and they brought him in as a little bit of a spark. He moved the ball, not only throwing the ball, but he moved it with his legs."
Hokies tailback Branden Ore has enjoyed solid games against the Tar Heels each of the last two seasons, rushing for 104 yards in Virginia Tech's 30-3 victory over UNC in Blacksburg, and 111 yards in last season's 35-10 triumph in Chapel Hill. Davis earned a measure of respect for Ore from a distance, having watched him perform as a college football commentator for the NFL Network.
"Watching him the last couple of years when I was covering college football for the NFL Network you just a great sense for how powerful, strong a good runner that he is," said Davis.
One key area in which the Tar Heels will have to be particularly adept at on Saturday is on special teams. The Hokies are well-known around the country for their swarming special teams units, along with a proven background of making big plays in that key area of the game.
"Certainly Virginia Tech's reputation special teams wise, they are typically one of the best special teams 'teams' in the country," said Davis. "They emphasize it a great deal. They put a lot of emphasis on it. They practice it, and have a lot of talented fast athletes that certainly make their special teams dangerous."
While the Tar Heels have to worry to a certain extent about what Virginia Tech will be doing, they have to spend the brunt of their time in practice this week getting better at the things that they are doing.
"This is a test for our football team, and again, we'll probably say this for a long time. A lot of this stuff still has to be about us," said Davis. "There are just things that we have to grow, that we have to learn, and every game presents new challenges. There are going to be new teams and new schemes and new plays, and it's an opportunity for us to find out more about what our kids can handle, what they can't handle, and give them the opportunity to play the best football that they can possibly play."
"I think that we had good meetings (Monday) with the team as we looked at the film against South Florida," Davis added. "South Florida is a fast, fast athletic defensive football team. (They are) very similar, but not quite as big as Virginia Tech, but there are a lot of different similarities. They (Virginia Tech) put a lot of pressure on you, and a lot of pressure on your offense. From last Saturday's game some of the things we had some opportunities that we wish we had over, we thought we could do well and we just didn't quite execute as well as we possibly could. I think that our guys saw that on film, and that they learned from that and they are eager to get back to work."
The Tar Heels are looking to see more out of true freshman tailback Ryan Houston this week, who figures to get a fair number of attempts against the Hokies.
"I think for a young freshman coming in, I think that he ran with confidence, which didn't surprise me," Davis said. "One of the things that he certainly did was he ran strong and he ran powerful, and he ran with good vision. Hopefully that is the tip of the iceberg."
Davis also briefly mentioned quarterback T.J. Yates, who struggled for the first time as a collegiate player last weekend against the Bulls. Davis expects Yates to continue growing as a quarterback, and given the poise he has already shown, the UNC head coach sees a chance for him to bounce back.
"I'm assuming that he'll respond positively. He's gotten sacked before, he's been able to just wipe it off and put it behind him. It will be part of his growth," he said.