CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was beaten at his own game.
Just when it appeared "Beamer Ball," was about to bail out a sluggish offense again on Saturday, it was East Carolina, not the Hokies, who came up with the big special teams play.
And after T.J. Lee returned his own blocked punt 27 yards for a touchdown with 1:52 left in a 27-22 upset win over the 17th-ranked Hokies, Beamer and Hokies were stunned.
"It hurts to lose on a blocked kick at the end," Beamer said.
Now Beamer knows how so many of his opponents have felt, as the Hokies lost for the first time in 18 games that they blocked a kick. Even a defensive touchdown wasn't enough as Virginia Tech's hopes of returning to a Bowl Championship Series game took a big hit on opening weekend.
"There's no excuse for that," Beamer said of Lee's block.
The win was another milestone for coach Skip Holtz, who was recently given a new six-year contract after rescuing the Conference USA program from tough times.
"It's a story of a group of young men that have come together and said, 'We're tired of losing. We want to accomplish something special,' " said Holtz, who has led the Pirates to consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1999-2000. "Their working very hard for that on the field and I'm very proud of them."
After Patrick Pinkney's 3-yard touchdown run with 3:36 left cut the deficit to 22-20, the Pirates stopped the Hokies' struggling offense and quarterback Sean Glennon. Lee burst through the line of scrimmage unblocked, smothered Brent Bowden's punt with his left hand, scooped up the ball on one bounce and ran in for the winning touchdown.
"It hit my arm. I was just looking around to see if anyone else could scoop and score," Lee said. "But I got a good bounce and came right to my hands. I just took it."
It quickly ended the flak the senior backup receiver and junior-college transfer received from his coach after early mistakes that included a 15-yard penalty for an illegal block that stalled a first-quarter drive.
"I got on him hard," Holtz said. "I'm going to have to apologize to him now."
Glennon then finished a frustrating day with an incomplete pass on fourth down deep in his own territory, setting off a wild celebration among the Pirates' fans at the neutral-site contest.
"This was like a bowl game atmosphere for us," said Holtz, who last year guided the Pirates to an upset win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. "To have the opportunity to come over here and play in a 70,000-seat NFL stadium, great city, where the fan base was pretty much even. To play a BCS team, what a great way to open the season."
And a horrible beginning for Virginia Tech, after the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division favorites seemed to have control of the game thanks to Stephan Virgil's 30-yard fumble return for a touchdown and his 2-point conversion return off a blocked extra point that gave Virginia Tech a 16-13 lead.
But the Hokies had only 243 yards offense. Minus Glennon's 62-yard pass to freshman Dyrell Roberts that set up Darren Evans' 3-yard TD early in the fourth quarter for a 22-13 lead, the fifth-year senior struggled.
He completed 14 of 23 passes for 139 yards and two interceptions. He wasn't helped when right tackle Blake DeChristopher left with a right thigh injury on the first offensive series.
"Do I feel I played good 90 percent of the time? Yeah," Glennon said. "But a senior quarterback's got to play good 100 percent of the time."
Glennon, who got the nod ahead of speedy sophomore Tyrod Taylor, was hurried much of the day. Beamer's plan coming into the season was to reshirt Taylor. A few more performances such as this for Glennon and the Hokies offense could make it tough to stick with that plan.
The defense and special teams staked Glennon to a 14-0 lead despite the absence of cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris (foot).
Pinkney was 19 of 23 for 211 yards and a touchdown, but the Hokies pounced on one of his few mistakes. Pinkney's swing pass to Dwayne Harris was thrown behind him and backward. Virgil scooped it up and ran 30 yards for a score, the Hokies' nation-best 67th non-offensive touchdown since the start of the 1999 season.
East Carolina's Dalvon Mack then twice failed to pick up the ensuing, low kickoff and Jacob Sykes recovered at the 25. Kenny Lewis Jr.'s 6-yard run six plays later put Virginia Tech in command with 8:54 left in the second quarter.
But East Carolina stormed back, survived a botched extra point, and now has a chance at another upset next week when it hosts No. 8 West Virginia.
"We love the competition," Pinkney said. "It'll make us better."