The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday January 27th

Special occasion

When Virginia Tech visits North Carolina this weekend the most crucial matchup will occur without either offense or defense on the field.

When the special teams units go head-to-head it will be a clash of old school versus new pitting a perennial power against an up-and-coming system.

It'll be Beamer Ball versus Brandon Ball — and it could very well be the difference in the ballgame.

Since Frank Beamer took control of the Virginia Tech football program in 1987" the Hokies consistently have had the best special teams unit in the nation.

""They play extraordinarily well on special teams" UNC coach Butch Davis said.

They'll capitalize on every opportunity if you're not sound in all of the phases of special teams. They'll try to find something that you don't do well" and they'll really try to exploit it.""

But the Tar Heels will be looking to beat the Hokies at their own game. The Heels boast a strong kicking game and the ACC's best return attack" led by senior speedster Brandon Tate.

Tate averages 37 yards per punt return and 38 on kickoffs — both good for best in the conference — and he took a punt back for an 82-yard score in the season opener" a game in which he racked up 397 total yards.

""You'd like to keep the ball away from him" but he's got other ideas Beamer said. He wants to go catch it and where he starts off might not be where he ends up. He's quick he's got great speed he's got size he's just very" very impressive.""

Any time Tate stands deep and awaits a kick" he presents the other team with a dilemma — kick the ball to No. 87 and risk giving up a momentum-swinging touchdown" or kick it away from him and surrender field position.

""My whole mentality is that every time I get the ball" I'm trying to score no matter what" Tate said.

But such special teams success will be a tougher test this week with Beamer Ball in town.

Since 1987, the Hokies have scored 41 touchdowns on special teams ­— an average of more than two per year.

They have manufactured points on the defensive end, too. Virginia Tech has tallied 100 non-offensive touchdowns in the last 15 years — and the team has had at least four in all but two of those seasons.

We've heard about Beamer Ball and all that" UNC kicker Jay Wooten said.

There's less room for error. They've got so much speed on their return team" and they bring a lot of pressure on field goals and punts and stuff like that. So you've definitely got to be prepared.""

Wooten and punter Terrence Brown have been refining their timing in practice" and they'll need every split second to avoid having kicks blocked this weekend.

The Hokies have deflected 121 kicks in 257 games with Beamer" and Tech was the most proficient kick-blocking team in the Football Bowl Subdivision in the 1990s.

But both UNC players have kicked well this year. Brown has averaged 41 yards per punt and has pinned opponents inside the 20 four out of nine times. Wooten is averaging 63.1 yards per kickoff and has opponents starting on the 21-yard line on average.

""Always with Virginia Tech" they come hard on a lot of their punts Brown said. I know coach John (Lovett UNC's special teams coordinator) hasn't stressed ‘hurry-up' or ‘rush"' because that kind of screws me up with my steps and stuff. We've had good operation times in the last two weeks.""

And Virginia Tech proved this season that even Beamer Ball isn't invincible to good special teams play.

The Hokies received a dose of their own medicine in their first game of 2008"" when East Carolina's T.J. Lee blocked a VT punt and took it 27 yards for the game-winning touchdown — a turn of events that Davis called ""so un-Virginia Tech-like.""

UNC will look to exploit this recent trend" but as Davis said they'll need a young and talented unit to keep improving. He said that his coverage team moved forward during the off-week before the Rutgers game and that the return game has been of particular focus once again.

From the opening kickoff Saturday the top two coverage teams in the ACC will go at it.

And whichever special teams unit comes out on top will be in a good position to come away in the driver's seat of the Coastal Division.

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