With its 38-22 loss to North Carolina on Saturday, Georgia Tech dropped to 1-4 for the season and 0-2 in the ACC. It’s the Yellow Jackets’ poorest record after five games since 1994.
Tech gave up 587 yards, the most since the same Tar Heels gained 636 yards in 2016. Five takeaways from the loss:
1. Defeated at the line
The two spots where the Jackets might be weakest, the offensive and defensive lines, had difficulty again. The offensive line had moments, including running back Jordan Mason’s 43-yard run following blocks from right guard Connor Hansen and center William Lay. But Mason netted 19 yards on his other seven carries and the line was often tormented by Tar Heels blitzes.
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The defensive line likewise had production, like defensive end Kelton Dawson’s two tackles for loss, sack and quarterback hurry. But, when the line needed to be impactful — on third down — it often could not pressure quarterback Sam Howell. For instance, on the third-quarter drive in which Dawson got his sack, Howell made passes from the pocket to convert a third-and-16, a third-and-10 and a fourth-and-7, leading to an 18-yard touchdown pass (again from a clean pocket) to raise North Carolina’s lead to a safe 24-7 early on in the fourth quarter.
“We did a lot of things to try to create pressure,” said defensive end Antwan Owens, who snagged his first career interception on North Carolina’s opening possession. “Sometimes, we were unsuccessful. We’ve just got to get back in the lab, work on it a little bit more, work on our pass rush, work on our hands, work on our feet.”
2. Graham’s up-and-down debut
In his first game as a starter, quarterback James Graham showed more of what he had shown in his first three appearances as a backup, particularly his extended run against Temple last Saturday — a lot of talent and potential but also a lot of room for improvement.
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Graham threw two passes to the sideline in which he didn’t give his target a chance because they were too close to the sideline, one of which could have been a 37-yard touchdown to wide receiver Malachi Carter on Tech’s first drive of the game. He also threw a second-quarter interception on a pass down the seam.
But he also had two well-placed, well-timed touchdown passes, one from 28 yards to Carter in the third quarter and the second to slot receiver Ahmarean Brown for a 32-yard score in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. On the latter, Graham sprinted out, threw off one foot and delivered a pass that traveled about 35 yards that hit Brown in stride.
Coach Geoff Collins said he could see him developing even as the game went on.
“I had a couple reads that I wish I could get back, and a few throws I shouldn’t have made, but it felt pretty good overall coming out and starting,” Graham said.
3. Pass defense slides
Tech’s pass defense had entered the game ranked 33rd nationally in defensive passer rating at 117.47, but Howell melted the Jackets with a 148.6 rating (33-for-51 for 376 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) and could have done even better had receivers cooperated on some catchable passes.
The protection that was afforded Howell, as well as his ability to slip away from pressure when it reached him, provided time to throw. To this point, Tech had done the job with superior one-on-one plays and disguised coverages, but Saturday the time given Howell, his accuracy and his talented set of targets were too much.
The Tar Heels converted 11 of 19 third downs, including 9-for-15 on third-and-6 or longer. Collins suggested that understanding down-and-distance and route concepts was part of the problem.
4. Not all bad
The final score withstanding, there were some bright spots. Wide receiver Adonicas Sanders, one of three Tech players making his first career start (Graham and Lay were the others), set a career high for receptions (three) and receiving yardage (67) as he replaced Jalen Camp, who underwent season-ending surgery this week. He had an impressive catch-and-run play in which he ran a short route to the sideline, then eluded two defenders and broke a tackle for a 39-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
The Jackets’ 321 yards of offense were a season high and their 22 points — all scored in the second half — were the most against an FBS opponent.
After a scoreless first half, Tech scored more points in the second than it had against any of its FBS opponents this season.
Linebacker David Curry set a career high with 16 tackles. Hansen had a solid run-blocking game at right guard.
“It hurts, but I think the attitude and the desire to improve is there,” Collins said. “So we’ll keep working, keep getting better.”
5. Hot and cold
Collins made a point of noting that Tech and Carolina both averaged the same number of yards per play — 6.1. The obvious difference is that North Carolina’s success on third down compared to Tech’s performance — 4-for-11 — enabled the Tar Heels to run 97 plays to Tech’s 53. The Jackets also could secure but one turnover, a disappointment for Collins.
“I thought (the offense) started clicking in the second half, but we’ve just got to make sure we play good team football, complementary football, as well,” he said.
A week after the defense held Temple to 17 points in 11 possessions, the Jackets surrendered 38 points in 12 UNC drives.
“We’ve been playing really, really well the last few games, and then we come out and we can’t get off the field,” Curry said. “For me personally, that hurts me as a defensive leader. Seeing that the offense is really getting their stuff together — it looked really, really good (Saturday) — we’re not going to dwell on it. It hurts. Yeah, it hurts a lot. But we’re going to move forward, and the only thing we can do is go be 1-0 vs. Duke.”
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