“A little bit of a reality check for us,” said linebacker David Curry, who had a career-high 16 tackles. “We’ve been playing really well the last few games and then we come out and we can’t get off the field.”
In redshirt freshman quarterback James Graham’s first career start, Tech’s offense gained 321 yards. The Jackets gained 219 of them in three impressive second-half drives in which the offense clicked, needing just 15 plays for their only three scoring drives in 12 possessions, not counting a first-half kneel-down.
"We're starting to find a little bit of a rhythm," Collins said.
The Tar Heels were in clear control of the game, though, when the Jackets crossed the goal line. The first touchdown drive finished with a 28-yard pass from Graham to wide receiver Malachi Carter, the second on a 2-yard run by running back Jordan Mason and the last with a 32-yard pass from Graham to wide receiver Ahmarean Brown.
Tech gained 102 yards in its other 38 snaps.
Graham showed potential – his touchdown pass to Carter was a well-placed delivery behind UNC’s coverage. But he unsurprisingly made mistakes, as well, throwing into the sideline on a first-quarter pass to Carter that could have been a 37-yard touchdown pass that would have given the Jackets an early lead and also killing a second-quarter drive with an interception on a downfield pass down the center of the field.
“I had a couple reads that I wish I could get back, and a few throws that I shouldn’t have made, but it felt pretty good overall coming out and starting,” Graham said.
He finished 11-for-24 passing for 171 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, one on the final possession of the game. Backup quarterback Tobias Oliver played a few snaps of quarterback and lined up at receiver, making his first career catch in the fourth quarter.
“His first game getting significant amounts of time, and you could just see him grow and develop, even throughout the game,” Collins said of Graham.
But Tech’s greater shortcoming may have been the challenged play of its short-handed offensive line, which was not able to consistently protect Graham in passing situations and did not create enough gaps for the run game to succeed.
The Tech defensive front was defeated by North Carolina’s offensive line, which gave freshman quarterback Sam Howell all the time he needed to amass 376 passing yards and four touchdowns on 33-for-51 passing in easily the best game of his young career. Tech’s defense had come into the game ranked 33rd nationally in passer efficiency rating, largely because of the standout coverage of the secondary.
However, the protection afforded Howell – he was sacked once and pressured twice – and the playmaking of receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown was too much for Tech. The Tar Heels converted 11 of 19 third downs, enabling them to run 97 snaps to Tech’s 53.
Tech put UNC in 15 third downs of six yards or longer. The Tar Heels converted nine of them, including five of nine yards or longer.
“I think you could feel it during the game defensively – we were playing really good on first down, second down, creating tackles for loss, creating negative plays,” Collins said. “But just the conversions on third down, they hurt us, extended drives.”
The North Carolina line, a group that both coach Geoff Collins and defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker expressed concern about during the week, also did a number in the run game, enabling the Tar Heels to punish Tech for 211 rushing yards. It was the third time this season that Tech’s defense, ranked 128th in rushing defense in FBS, gave up 200 yards or more of rushing defense.