There was no one play that decided Georgia Tech’s Saturday afternoon game against North Carolina because there could never be just one play that mattered more than all others when the visitors win 38-22. There was, though, one kind of play that knee-capped the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Third downs were calamitous for Tech on offense and defense.

It wasn’t just that the Jackets converted a mere four-of-11 when they had the ball, but the combination of that and UNC converting 11-of-19 plus its only fourth-down try tilted the game early, often and away from Tech.

Coach Geoff Collins liked the Jackets’ effort, but not so much their execution on third downs.

“They fought, they competed. Just got to play much better situational football,” he said after Tech fell to 1-4, 0-2 in the ACC. “I think when you look at it, and you could feel it during the game, we were playing really good first-down and second-down defense, creating tackles for loss, negative plays, but just the conversions on third down hurt us. 

“They extended drives, and conversely not being able to continue drives.”

The problems for the Jackets came fast and hard when the Tar Heels converted 5 of 7 third downs in a first quarter that saw them run a staggering 32 plays to Tech’s 11. That was even though Tech defensive end Antwan Owens dropped into zone coverage and intercepted a third-down pass by North Carolina’s Sam Howell to end the Tar Heels’ first drive of the game.

Tech conked out on the ensuing possession when quarterback James Graham missed Malachi Carter on third-and-13 (after a false-start penalty against Jared Southers on third-and-8), and soon a troublesome trend become full. 

The Tar Heels converted three consecutive third downs – of 12, two and four yards – on a 15-play drive that ended with a field goal and UNC took a lead it never lost.

The Jackets’ next third down ended with nothing when Graham was stalled for no gain on third-and-9 and the Jackets punted the ball away.

North Carolina soon was good on third-and-6, and then on third-and-10 with a 21-yard pass to wide receiver Dazz Newsome only to have that wiped away by an offensive pass-interference penalty.

Even on what turned out to be North Carolina’s game-winning drive when the Jackets got a third down stop at the Tech 35-yard line as Dontae Smith tackled Tar Heels running back Michael Carter for a 3-yard loss to set up fourth-and 7, the visitors came up with an extension play. 

Howell hit wide receiver Rontavius Groves for 15 yards to extend the possession, and the Tar Heels soon took a 24-7 lead on Dyami Brown’s 18-yard touchdown reception with 14:18 left in the game.

“That drive at the end where I think they two or three third-and-long conversions, we’ve got to address that, fix it ...,” Collins said. “We were being very aggressive creating tackles for loss ... misfit a couple things. I thought we had a good game plan, a good thought process, and the guys were out there battling and executing. It was just the third down that was getting us.” 

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