AP Sports Writer
(AP) - Virginia Tech's secondary has been its defensive wild card all season.
It's where the Hokies can least afford injuries, and where they count on the leadership _ and availability _ of cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum to help bring the younger players along.
Yet, it was those two veterans that made glaring errors in the Hokies' 27-24 loss at Cincinnati last week. Fuller let the Bearcats' Damon Julian get behind him for a 39-yard, game-winning touchdown reception with 13 seconds to go, and Exum was called for four major penalties and missed a key tackle.
The unit was maligned after the game, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster came to its defense.
"I thought with the exception of about five plays we played a hell of a football game," Foster said in a profanity-laced tirade earlier this week. "That's going to get you beat at this level."
The Hokies (3-2, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) will need to be better on the back end starting Saturday when they travel to North Carolina (3-2, 0-1) to begin their push toward an ACC title.
Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner averages more than 284 passing yards per game and has thrown 14 touchdown passes, or nearly three per game. Nine receivers have at least one 20-yard reception.
First-year Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora isn't ready to write off the Hokies, though.
"They almost changed what their thought process was in this game," he said of the Cincinnati game. "They played a lot of man coverage, whether it was man free or zero. Evidently they didn't feel like Cincinnati could hurt them that way. I think they were fortunate enough to complete a few passes.
"If you look at it overall, they were pretty much dominating them other than a few big plays."
In practice this week, Foster has been part confidence-builder, part disappointed coach.
"He knows how to kinda get in your head to keep your confidence level up and such," sophomore safety Kyshoen Jarrett said, "but at the same time, he doesn't want to let an individual play lower than what his potential is, so he has to be that good (supporter) but he also has to be tough, very tough, on us.
"I respect that and I'm pretty sure everybody else does as well because I wouldn't want anybody to let me play lower than what my potential is. I would want someone to be tough on me more than anything."
The strategy works, too, Jarrett said. Other defensive leaders like linebacker Bruce Taylor have made sure they leave the disappointment behind them and come back knowing they can do the job.
"Everybody outside looking in would probably think our confidence level is down," Jarrett said. "But you have older guys like Bruce getting everybody together before practice and letting us know that we can't lower our head and we have to keep fighting and pretty much no more joking around.
"We all just have to attack in a different way than we was before."
They will also have to do it quickly against North Carolina's no-huddle spread offense, which is coming off a school-record 66-0 victory against Idaho and averaging 43.2 points. The Hokies have already played spread offense in Bowling Green and Cincinnati, and Jarrett thinks the pace will be fine.
"We thought Bowling Green's tempo was going to be really fast when they came out and Cincinnati's was pretty fast when they came out last week, and I felt like we kinda adjusted to it pretty well," he said. "When we practice, we practice fast-paced just so we can make sure we can prepare for anything."
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(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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