JACKSONVILLE, Fla. _ No. 7 North Carolina was mad when it didn't get an alliance bowl bid. The Tar Heels took it out on Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl on Thursday. North Carolina (11-1) routed the Hokies 42-3, posting an 11-win season for only the third time in 107 years of football and giving new coach Carl Torbush an impressive debut. "We know an alliance team when we see one and this is certainly an alliance team," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose team played in the Orange and Sugar bowls each of the last two seasons. "They compare with Nebraska. North Carolina wouldn't take a backseat to any of those guys." "We felt like we deserved better (with the bowls) but we got dealt a bad hand and we played it like grown men," said North Carolina linebacker Kivuusama Mays. "We took what we got and played the game. Hey, maybe next year, they'll give us a little bit more respect." Torbush took the job three weeks ago after Mack Brown left for Texas. The team's former defensive coordinator coached from a box above Alltel Stadium, but not much critical communication was needed to the sideline after the Tar Heels took their early lead. "Mack Brown never put up 42 points in a bowl game, coach Torbush did," Mays said. Torbush was summoned down to the field by All-American defensive end Greg Ellis via headsets with about one minute to go. Torbush was then drenched and carried off the field on the shoulders of Mays and Vonnie Holliday. "It was water, we figured he wasn't ready for the Gatorade yet, he's still a rookie," Ellis said. North Carolina's point total was the most in its 22-game bowl history, while Virginia Tech (7-5) lost its final three games and dropped the Big East's postseason record to 0-4. "In my opinion we proved we're one of the top three or four teams in the country," said Torbush. "I think we've basically done that all year. We've had a great year _ as fine a year as North Carolina has ever had on both sides of the ball." The Hokies were held to a season-low 185 total yards and lost three of six fumbles. "We wanted to punish everybody on the field and we did that," said Mays. It was a great day for quarterback Chris Keldorf, who missed last year's Gator Bowl win over West Virginia with a broken ankle, and two of North Carolina's three All-Americans on defense.
Keldorf finished 17 of 28 for 290 yards and three scores to earn the game's MVP award. Cornerback Dre' Bly, who intercepted two passes in last year's bowl, blocked one punt and recovered another one for a score. And Ellis recovered a fumble in the end zone that gave the Tar Heels a 22-0 lead 15:07 into the game. "This is not to take anything away from North Carolina but I don't know when we've helped a team beat us as much as was the case today," Beamer said. "I really think we helped their cause."
Keldorf threw for 161 yards in the first quarter alone as the Hokies surrendered big plays _ a major concern of coach Frank Beamer coming in _ for the third straight game. The North Carolina quarterback completed passes of 31 and 27 yards in the Tar Heels' opening series, the latter to tailback Jonathan Linton, who strained a ligament in his right knee Tuesday in practice but played brilliantly.
Josh McGee's 29-yard field goal gave the Tar Heels the lead and they quickly built on it. A series later, Keldorf hooked up with Octavus Barnes on a 62-yard scoring pass that stunned the Hokies and continued Barnes' super play in the postseason. It was the senior's third TD catch in four bowl games. He added a 14-yard scoring pass four seconds into the final quarter. North Carolina then scored twice in a span of 1:10. Quinton Savage blocked Jimmy Kibble's punt with 1:03 left in the opening quarter and Bly scooped it up and raced untouched 6 yards. It was the fifth blocked punt against the Hokies this season and third North Carolina block returned for a score. On the next series, Brian Simmons got to Al Clark as he was about to hand off, forcing a fumble in the end zone that Ellis pounced on seven seconds into the second quarter. The Hokies, 15th in the nation in rushing at 215 yards a game, were held to 8 yards on 22 carries in the first half as the Tar Heels sacked Clark three times. Clark underwent knee surgery Dec. 1. Torbush make his first trick call on North Carolina's opening drive of the second half as Brian Schmitz faked a punt and hit Simmons for a 28-yard completion that led to Linton's 1-yard scoring run. Shayne Graham's 40-yard field goal late in the third quarter avoided the shutout for the Hokies. The Gator Bowl was sponsored by Toyota.