5 things to know before Georgia Tech-North Carolina

Georgia Tech’s past two trips to Chapel Hill, N.C., have not been successful, losses in 2014 and 2016. In fact, the Tar Heels have won three of the past four meetings with the Yellow Jackets.

However, Tech will face a Tar Heels outfit that is 1-6 after finishing last season 3-9.

Five things to know about Saturday’s game.

Quarterback playing time

How Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson distributes playing time between quarterbacks TaQuon Marshall and Tobias Oliver will bear watching after Oliver’s standout performance against Virginia Tech (215 rushing yards, three touchdowns) last week in Marshall’s stead.

With Marshall back healthy, it’s expected that the senior captain will start. However, where Oliver has played either when Marshall has been hurt or if the game has gotten out of reach, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Oliver was sent into the game as a change of pace.

“I want TaQuon to go out and do his thing just like he has been, but, yeah, definitely, I feel really good about getting in a game,” Oliver said.

It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Marshall runs with more explosiveness. His last game was against Duke on Oct. 13, giving him ample time to heal up from dings collected over the season and what appeared to be a shoulder injury that knocked him out of that game.

Hold onto the ball

Sometimes, the objectives can be pretty simple.

“When we don’t turn the ball over and we don’t have penalties, we’re usually pretty successful,” Johnson said Tuesday.

This season, the Jackets are 3-0 when they haven’t committed any turnovers and 1-4 when they have.

“This is my 11th season,” Johnson said. “If you went back and looked – and I don’t know the answer to this – but I bet if you go back and look, we probably haven’t lost too many when we didn’t turn the ball over.”

Since Johnson’s hire, Tech is 19-4 when it makes it through a game without a giveaway, according to sports-reference.com. The record falls to 27-17 with one turnover, 24-20 with two turnovers and 10-17 with three or more.

On the flipside, the Jackets are 8-22 when they don’t force a turnover, 19-18 when gaining one turnover, 22-12 with two and 31-6 with three or more.

Giving Heels their due

Johnson has made clear that, despite their 1-6 record, he’s wary of the Tar Heels. North Carolina is 1-3 in games decided by one possession and also had 13 players suspended – nine of them for four games – for NCAA rules violations involving the sale of their team-issue shoes.

“If they ever put it all together, they’re going to beat the bejesus out of somebody,” Johnson said. “I just hope it’s not Saturday.”

Quarterback Nathan Elliott has completed 61 percent of his passes and has thrown 212 consecutive passes without an interception. The Tar Heels undoubtedly will probe Tech’s secondary, which has been vulnerable to the pass and last week was complicit in Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis completing 15 of 22 passes for 201 yards. On the other side, the Jackets also will need to be wary of defensive end Malik Carney, who has 29 tackles (7.5 for loss) in only four games.

Better defense early 

In the past two games, opponents have started quickly against the Jackets defense. Duke opened the game with a four-play, 52-yard touchdown drive, and Virginia Tech started its game by going 73 yards in only five plays for a 7-0 lead, then put together touchdown drives on its next two possessions.

In the first three possessions against the Hokies, the Jackets tackled poorly and didn’t cover well, leading to a succession of big plays, before recovering. Before playing Duke, Tech had allowed only one opponent to score on its drive in its first six games. Duke and Virginia Tech also had the advantage of having an extra week to prepare for the Jackets (although Georgia Tech also had an open date to prepare for the Hokies).

Given the difference in the tempos that the teams play at (Tech slow, UNC fast), getting an early lead would be helpful for the Jackets to gain control of the game. 

What’s at stake

Tech can improve to 5-4 with a win over the Tar Heels, which would be its first time above .500 since winning the season opener over Alcorn State. It also would move the Jackets to within one game of bowl eligibility, which has become the team’s primary objective. Tech has missed the postseason two of the past three seasons. A win would then require to pick up one more win against the closing gauntlet of Miami, Virginia and Georgia to earn a bowl invite.

A win would also keep alive the Jackets’ slim chances of winning the Coastal Division. Tech’s optimal route is to beat North Carolina, Miami and Virginia to finish at 5-3 in league play and then get help from the rest of the division.

Pittsburgh and Virginia, both with one loss in league play, meet Friday. It’s debatable which result would help more. The two results that would most help Tech this weekend (besides a win over UNC) would be a Boston College win over Virginia Tech and a Duke loss to Miami.

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