Georgia Tech has been a first-person witness to the rise of North Carolina in the ACC. Led by coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels have developed a prolific offense, advanced to their first ACC championship game and produced the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
They’ve run over the Yellow Jackets in each of the past three seasons, averaging 44.7 points, 542.7 yards and 7.6 yards per play in the three conquests. North Carolina’s up-tempo pace accounts for some of the inflated points and yards averages, but not all of it. In the Tar Heels’ other 21 ACC regular-season games in the 2014-16 seasons, they averaged 32.1 points, 439.6 yards and 6.3 yards per play.
“There’s no secret we’ve struggled defensively against those guys,” coach Paul Johnson said. “They’ve lit us up here for the last little bit. It’s a challenge for our defense to come out. Hopefully we can play as well as we did this (past) week (against Pittsburgh).”
In the past three years, North Carolina is the only team that Tech plays annually (the six Coastal Division opponents, Clemson and Georgia) that Tech has not defeated. Tech’s seniors, in particular, are aware. The Jackets get their chance to turn the tables Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“I’ve had three shots, and they’ve beaten us every time, so this is one I want to get after,” linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “We all do. It doesn’t matter who we play, we always want to win, but this one for me personally is one I want to get before I leave here.”
Last year’s matchup, in Chapel Hill, N.C., was particularly gruesome. Ineffective pass rush, poor tackling and blown coverages led to a field day for the Tar Heels, who gouged Tech for 636 yards of offense, the second-highest total that Tech has allowed in the modern era.
With time to throw, Trubisky showcased his touch and accuracy for scouts, finishing 20-for-32 for 329 yards and a touchdown. Running back Elijah Hood, running behind a line that repeatedly overpowered Tech defenders at the point of attack, sped and powered his way to 168 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries.
The offense contributed with two lost fumbles. Harrison Butker added one of his only two missed field-goal tries of the season in the 48-20 defeat. After Tech had won 14 of the past 16, it was UNC’s first three-game winning streak over the Jackets since 1992-94.
“They just had our number that game running and throwing the ball,” defensive end Antonio Simmons said. “We just know we’ve got to start fast and play a lot better. We’ve got to finish.”
Timing may be working out for the Jackets. First, the Tar Heels lost a wealth of talent from their 2016 offense, including five members of the offense who were drafted in the spring. Another two signed undrafted free agent contracts.
Second, North Carolina has been besieged by injuries. The UNC injury report lists 13 players out with season-ending injuries and another four who will be out for Saturday’s game. The Jackets’ injuries are mounting, but they have not reported any players lost for the season and will have five players out for the North Carolina game.
Against Tech, North Carolina will be without players who produced 99 percent of its rushing yards in 2016, 98 percent of its passing yards and 94 percent of its receiving yards.
“They’re in the midst of an experiencing a little bit of we did in ’15,” Johnson said, referring to Tech’s injury-wrought season. “It sounds like every time you turn around, another guy’s getting hurt. We’re starting to get some of that ourselves here.”
Further, Tech just finished one of the best defensive games it has played in Johnson’s 10 seasons. With sure tackling and an effective pass rush, the Jackets limited Pitt to just one third-down conversion in 13 tries, Tech’s best defensive third-down rate in the Johnson era.
North Carolina, which has led in the fourth quarter of all of its games but is 1-3, looks like a better test for the Jackets than was Pittsburgh.
A win would send Tech into its open date at 2-0 in the ACC and add meaning to its Oct. 14 matchup at Miami.
“It’s our time, it’s our turn,” Lewis said. “It’s a new team. So we just want to make something happen this year.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.