September 23, 2017 Atlanta - Georgia Tech running back KirVonte Benson (30) runs for a first down in the first half of an NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, September 23, 2017. Georgia Tech won 35 - 17 over the Pittsburgh. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/AJC

Keys for Georgia Tech vs. North Carolina

After one of its best defensive performances in the tenure of coach Paul Johnson last week against Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech will try to build on that performance against North Carolina Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Yellow Jackets will try to stop a three-game losing streak to North Carolina, their longest active losing streak against any ACC opponent. Here are three priorities for the Jackets against the Tar Heels.

1. Hold onto the ball

Tech fumbled five times against Pitt, losing four of them. As quarterback TaQuon Marshall and B-back KirVonte Benson (as well as backups Quaide Weimerskirch and Jerry Howard) gain experience in the offense, effectively executing the mesh and keeping the ball secure have to be part of that development. Tech can’t expect to win with four turnovers.

As noted earlier this week, the Jackets beat substantial odds to beat Pitt despite giving the ball away that frequently (and allowing a punt return for a touchdown).

“It’s clearly something we’ve got to get better at, or it’s going to cost us a game, no question about it,” Johnson said.

2. Stay healthy

Short of running away from contact, there’s obviously no way of ensuring an injury-free game. But the Tech offensive line, which has played particularly well thus far, is in a position where an injury to any of the five starters would put the Jackets in a position of inserting a player who, at the least, lacks significant experience. With offensive tackles Andrew Marshall and Jahaziel Lee declared out, the next player in if there’s an injury to a tackle or guard will probably be sophomore walk-on Bailey Ivemeyer, whose experience has mostly consisted of playing at the end of blowout wins. Ivemeyer may prove up to the task, but it’s reasonable to conclude that Johnson isn’t eager to have to find that out on Saturday.

3. Keep Surratt in the pocket

North Carolina has run into trouble on third down, where the Tar Heels have converted 31.5 percent of their third downs. Tech, meanwhile, has been strong defensively on third down after finishing 126th in FBS last year at 49.2 percent. The Jackets rank 14th at 26.5 percent through games. One way they can continue to build on this strength is to keep quarterback Chazz Surratt from making plays with his feet in passing situations. That means the edge rushers like Anree Saint-Amour and Antonio Simmons not taking angles that are too wide and the defensive tackles such as Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Desmond Branch pushing up the pocket. Surratt is a dual-threat quarterback who can run draws and keepers. He has nine runs of 10 yards or more, fifth in the ACC.

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