5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s win over No. 13 North Carolina

If seven games of Georgia Tech interim coach Brent Key’s tenure have shown anything, it’s that his team isn’t afraid of a challenge. Under his leadership, the Jackets have been underdogs by 20 points or more three times. After Tech’s 21-17 upset of No. 13 North Carolina, the Jackets are 2-1 in those games, with the other win over Pitt in his debut as interim and the loss to Florida State, now No. 16.

Puzzlingly, though, Tech is 0-2 in games when it has been favored, with the losses to Virginia and Miami. Tech fans will perhaps greet with some relief that the Jackets were deemed 36.5-point underdogs to No. 1 Georgia for Saturday’s game in Athens.

Five takeaways from Tech’s win in Chapel Hill, N.C.:

Compressing Drake Maye

Against a quarterback who thrives on getting out of the pocket to either make throws downfield or scramble for gains, a high priority for the Tech defensive line was to keep UNC quarterback Drake Maye in the pocket. One way to do that was to rely heavily on bull rushes and other power-based moves as opposed to speed moves that might require linemen to get outside of their assigned gaps and leave space for Maye to escape.

Power moves that drove offensive linemen straight back, defensive end Keion White said, served to “compress that pocket so he didn’t really have a lot of places to go and put him under distress, and I feel like we executed that really well.”

Tech’s season-high six sacks and Maye’s 53.3% completion rate (he had completed 69.5% before Saturday) attests to the line’s discipline in following the plan.

“We didn’t know if there was going to be that many opportunities to get sacks, but we knew if they kept pressuring the quarterback, it would make him make mistakes,” Key said.

While he had some catchable throws that were dropped, Maye was not his typically efficient self. He had his first interception in five games – by safety LaMiles Brooks with a superior effort – that ended a streak of 195 consecutive passes without a pick. His 202 passing yards were a season low by 71 yards.

“It was just one of those nights where they came out and played better than us,” Maye said.

As an offense, North Carolina was held to season lows in points, yards (365) and passing yards (202). The Tar Heels had scored in all but one of their 40 quarters played this season, that the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech when they took a 41-10 lead into the final period. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker’s defense held North Carolina scoreless over the final two quarters Saturday when its College Football Playoff hopes were on the line.

“We came out kind of flat to begin with, and we weren’t fitting the way we were supposed to, and we kind of had to get back to roots and hunker down and realize the game is a lot smaller than we made it out to be,” White said. “And once we did that, we really started playing the defense that I knew we could play.”

Winning ‘middle 8′

Key has made no secret of his placing high value on the “middle 8″ – the four minutes before halftime and the four coming out of the half. Analytics experts have cited that stretch as having outsized influence on the game’s outcome.

It played to Tech’s advantage Saturday. After UNC scored with 3:13 left in the first half to take a 17-0 lead, quarterback Zach Gibson led an 84-yard touchdown drive that cut the score to 17-7 with 48 seconds left. Two plays were key. After UNC coach Mack Brown called timeout with 2:26 left before a third-and-3 with the intent of getting a stop and saving time for another scoring drive, Gibson connected with running back Hassan Hall for a pass to convert the third down just as a blitz was blowing up in his face. On a first-and-10 at the UNC 41-yard line, Gibson checked to a different play at the line of scrimmage, calling for Hall to run a route over the middle that turned into a 36-yard gain to the UNC 5. The Jackets were in the end zone two plays later with 48 seconds left in the half on a 2-yard run by running back Dontae Smith.

“That’s the check of the year,” quarterback Taisun Phommachanh said. “That sparked us right there going into halftime.”

After Smith’s touchdown, Key said “there was a huge feeling there that it was going in the right direction.”

Coming out of halftime, North Carolina received the ball first with the chance to answer and return the lead to three scores. But, thanks to a fumble forced by defensive tackle D’Quan Douse that caused a 13-yard loss, the Jackets got a stop. Starting the ensuing drive with 12:30 left in the quarter – just at the end of the middle 8 – at the Tech 32, the Jackets drove 68 yards for their second touchdown, with Gibson directing the offense to the UNC 14 and then subbing out for Phommachanh, whose 4-yard run behind tight ends PeJé Harris, Luke Benson and Dylan Leonard reduced the Tar Heels’ lead to 17-14.

“The middle 5 is really, really important,” said Brown, who evidently has a similar segment of the game as Key. “They took advantage of it going into halftime and the momentum coming out, and we never got it back.”

Backup QBs meet moment

On paper, there wasn’t much reason for faith in Gibson and Phommachanh to take the lead in a successful upset bid. Gibson had underwhelmed in four games, leading the offense to 10 points in 16 full possessions. Phommachanh had not played a snap in Tech’s first 10 games after transferring from Clemson in the offseason.

But with Jeff Sims and Zach Pyron not options, they did more than their part, making plays with their arms and feet and directing the Jackets’ game of keepaway to limit possessions for North Carolina’s potent offense.

No quarterback likes being rotated in and out of the offense, but they handled it with a team-first approach.

“It was just a feel,” Gibson said. “Back and forth, we were going all week, interchanging in practice, and we were comfortable with it. The team was comfortable with it, and it worked (Saturday). It’s not very often that you see two-quarterback systems work, but we executed our game plan to a ‘T.’”

Supported by a run game that chipped away for 186 yards on 49 carries, the Jackets stayed out of third-and-long enough to convert 8 of 15 third downs (53.3%), quite prosperous for an offense that entered Saturday ranked 128th out of 131 FBS teams at 28.9%.

That steadiness helped Tech hold the ball for 34:27 and limit the Tar Heels to 11 possessions.

“Our plan was to keep their offense off the field,” Phommachanh said. “We know they’ve got an explosive offense. So we took our time, we executed the plan and we came out with the victory.”

Both made difference-making plays, Phommachanh running four times for a first down or touchdown and Gibson generating 10 first downs out of his 13 completions.

“He had some tough runs,” Gibson said.

UNC falls in trap game

The disappointment was high on the North Carolina side. Brown recounted the team’s shortcomings on offense – scoring only 10 points on five red-zone trips, dropping passes, giving up six sacks, converting 4 of 14 third downs. Wide receiver Josh Downs, double-teamed much of the night, was limited to three catches for 31 yards, way below his season averages (10.5 catches per game for 105.9 yards per game). He was unable to hold onto what would have likely been a game-winning touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter.

“I didn’t do a good job,” Brown said. “I didn’t have them prepared. I thought we were mature enough to play in what would be called a trap game. I thought we were beyond that after Virginia (a 31-28 win over the lower-rung Cavaliers), but we obviously weren’t.”

It could be understood if the Jackets didn’t have North Carolina’s full attention. The team had clinched the Coastal Division last week and was facing a team that was 4-6, had lost three of its past four and was down to its third and fourth quarterbacks. Further, North Carolina plays archrival N.C. State next week and then Clemson in the ACC Championship game the week after that.

“Congratulations to Georgia Tech,” Brown said. “They played better than we did, they coached better than we did and, obviously, they won the game. Very disappointing for us.”

Brown made an unusual observation about the Tar Heels’ first offensive play from scrimmage, an 80-yard touchdown run by UNC running back (and Blessed Trinity grad) Elijah Green.

“I always get afraid when you score on the first play of the game,” Brown said. “Everybody relaxes and thinks, ‘We got this.’ I hate it. It sounds foolish, but I hate it. For an immature team, a young team like ours, you can get complacent fast, and I thought that’s what happened.”

‘He loves us and we love him’

Regardless of what happens Saturday against No. 1 Georgia, Saturday’s win was quite a trophy for the Jackets and Key, another demonstration of the relentlessness, selflessness and smart, effective play that the interim has effected since taking over for Geoff Collins.

“Being an offensive line coach, he definitely instills a more physical feel of the whole team, and it’s going to be a dogfight,” said White, the defensive end. “If we have to scratch, claw, bite our way out, we’re going to do it. And that’s what I feel like he brings to the table. That’s my guy. He just brings a different energy to the table.”

It was Tech’s second win on the road over a ranked opponent and by ranking the Jackets’ biggest win since the Miracle on Techwood Drive game in 2015 over Florida State, then ranked ninth.

The biggest question regarding the team – who will athletic director J Batt hire as full-time coach? – does not have much clarity. It is conceivable Batt has already made up his mind or is close to it. Whatever transpires in the next week and a half or so at Tech, it’s been quite a turn at the wheel for Key.

“Just the messages that he preaches, he’s so impactful to us,” Brooks said. “He loves us and we love him, so the same way we play for each other as teammates, we play for him being our coach.”