A for Effort. D for Discipline.

After an excruciating week of embarrassment following the 55-31 blowout loss to East Carolina, the Tar Heels were determined to play harder and smarter against Virginia Tech Saturday in Blacksburg.

Harder, yes; smarter, no, in the 27-17 loss.

Carolina matched the Hokies’ blow for blow right through the final blow struck by junior tight end Jack Tabb, who was ejected for throwing a punch in a late-game scuffle. Tabb, returning from a two game suspension for violating a team rule, is in jeopardy of missing Miami’s visit on October 17 for his loss of composure.

Playing without starting quarterback Bryn Renner, supposedly a game-time decision with an injured foot, the Heels had their chances behind sophomore Marquise Williams, who got better as the game went on.

Williams completed almost every pass he threw in the second half; unfortunately, one of them was to Virginia Tech safety Kyle Fuller, the interception that ended Carolina’s best chance to pull an upset. Trailing 21-10 at the time, Williams faked a hand-off to Romar Morris on fourth-and-one and tried to hit Tabb over the middle. Tabb held the underthrown pass for a second before Fuller took the ball away from him at his own 10.

A 90-yard drive over the next nine minutes put the game away for Virginia Tech, now 5-1 after an opening game loss to top-ranked Alabama.

Earlier, Carolina blew a chance to cut into a two touchdown deficit at halftime when a block-in-the back penalty nullified freshman Ryan Switzer’s 80-yard punt return to the house. The third week in a row a touchdown was called back, it was the most damaging of 11 penalties on the Heels who have now gone three straight games with at least 10 flags thrown against them.

They also lacked the discipline not to get suckered by the play fakes of Virginia Tech senior quarterback Logan Thomas, whom they made look like Randall Cunningham on this day. Thomas, who was averaging less than 200 yards a game passing coming in, threw for 293 and three TDs on 19 of 28 completions. Literally his biggest play was an 83-yard pass and run after punter Tommy Hibbard had pinned the Hokies on their own 2 yard line. Thomas froze the Carolina secondary with a play fake and found Willie Bryn behind the defense with the big gainer that led to a 21-7 halftime score.

Bad defensive decisions had helped Virginia Tech go up 14-0 when Thomas hit Demetrius Knowles with a 45-yard touchdown pass over a couple of confused UNC DBs and then the 6-6 QB ran right, drew the defense and found D.J. Coles wide open in the corner of the end zone.

The Tar Heels got back into the game on their best drive of the sun-soaked day, Williams stringing receptions together to Quinshad Davis and T.J. Thorpe and, after he sneaked for a first and goal on fourth down, throwing it up for Eric Ebron to make an acrobatic TD catch in the right corner of the end zone. Carolina was field-positioned to tie the game on Hibbard’s beauty but let Thomas throw over the top to Bryn on the 98-yard scoring drive.

Carolina’s last 10 points came on a 36-yeard field goal from the reliable Thomas Moore of Chapel Hill and a last-minute TD pass from the colorfully named connection, Marquise to Quinshad. That made the outcome look closer than it was.

Despite allowing two field-length scoring drives, Carolina’s running defense was much improved against a limited Hokies rushing attack, holding them to 48 yards from the line of scrimmage. Besides the big plays that hurt the Tar Heels, Switzer muffed a punt inside his own 20-yard line in the fourth quarter leading to Tech putting the game away with its fourth touchdown. Fortunately, we’ll see more of the Wes Welker-like Switzer in weeks and years to come.

We may see more of Williams, as well, even after Renner returns from his injury, along with freshmen T.J. Logan and Khris Francis, who are the only two running backs quick enough to get to the corner on sweeps and the read option. They all bode well for the Tar Heels’ future, if not the rest a 2013 season that is slipping toward a losing record and no bowl bid in a year when they can go bowling again. A loss to Miami, which ran away from Georgia Tech Saturday to grab a stranglehold on the ACC Coastal Division, and a 1-5 Carolina would almost have to win out to salvage one of the ACC’s last-rung bowl bids.

Unlike the East Carolina debacle, where you could not point to any specific plays that turned the game, this one might have gone Carolina’s way with better execution and more poise on a finite number of snaps. Larry Fedora said as much afterward, sounding less perturbed than a week ago.

“We just have to try every day to get better, as players and coaches,” he said. “If we can do that, we can get this thing turned around eventually.”

Eventually may be too late for this season and only be a harbinger for the years ahead.