5 takeaways from Georgia Tech’s win over No. 21 North Carolina

Credit: ACC

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Yhe Yellow Jackets overwhelmed the Tar Heels 45-22 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Credit: ACC

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins has had visions of the heights that the Yellow Jackets can attain under his leadership and Saturday’s night 45-22 win over No. 21 North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, he said, was “a glimpse.”

Hitting hard, running fast and playing with attention to detail, Tech gave its fans the most significant win over Collins’ 26-game tenure. Five takeaways from the victory:

1. Dazzling show from Jeff Sims

Quarterback Jeff Sims gave repeated flashes last season of what he could be, showing dynamic running ability and an arm that could make all the passes and squeeze throws into tight spots. But he needed to be more consistent and accurate, and his erratic passing against Northern Illinois before he left the game with a left-arm injury left questions about his progress.

Stepping in for starter Jordan Yates in the second quarter, Sims looked like a much-improved version of himself against North Carolina. He displayed confidence, appeared to throw to the right places and was accurate in his deliveries, particularly the 27-yard delivery that he feathered into well-covered wide receiver Malachi Carter for a fourth-quarter touchdown. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He ran 10 times for a career-high 128 yards and three touchdowns (also a career high), including a 50-yarder (career long) to seal the game.

“I was prepared and I was ready to go,” he said.

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Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) gets tackled from behind by North Carolina defensive back Tony Grimes (20) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Tech won 45-22. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) gets tackled from behind by North Carolina defensive back Tony Grimes (20) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Tech won 45-22. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) gets tackled from behind by North Carolina defensive back Tony Grimes (20) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Tech won 45-22. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Sims acknowledged that he was in what he called a mental slump after the Northern Illinois game, but leaned into his family and his faith and tried to support Jordan Yates as he played in his place.

“Because there’s no benefit in me being a pouter and just going out there and having my head down and pouting and stuff,” Sims said.

His attitude was rewarded in a dazzling performance. North Carolina coach Mack Brown acknowledged “we couldn’t stop him” in the second half, as Sims led Tech to four touchdowns and a field goal in five consecutive possessions. Brown went on pay Sims an even higher compliment.

“It’s hard to show his speed in practice,” Brown said. “He looks like Vince Young (Brown’s national-championship quarterback at Texas). When I saw him as a true freshman, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that guy’s going to be really good. He’s going to give Georgia Tech a chance each week.’ And I thought he looked great (Saturday). He turned it over some in his past and that’d been a problem for him. Well, he didn’t do that (Saturday). He looked great. And I looked for him after the game — couldn’t find him — because I thought he was the difference in the ballgame.”

2. Room for improvement

Even after a convincing win over a ranked opponent – Tech’s first since 2017, and the first of Collins’ tenure after six losses – there are problems to address. One is a pattern of slow starts. The Jackets fell behind 7-0 when UNC quarterback Sam Howell broke four tackle attempts for a 23-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The possession was set up by the Jackets allowing their first blocked punt since the 2019 Duke game (punter David Shanahan appeared to have lined up perhaps a yard closer to the line of scrimmage than usual).

Georgia Tech 45, North Carolina 22

Tech has been outscored 21-0 in the first quarter in its three games against FBS opponents.

In the first half before Sims replaced Yates, Tech’s red-zone issues continued. On their third and fourth drives of the game, the Jackets had first-and-goal on the UNC 10-yard line and both drives netted only field goals. In the fourth quarter, Tech had first-and-goal from the UNC 5, but that time also came away with a field goal.

Against Clemson, Tech had three possessions that reached first-and-goal that generated a total of six points. A year ago, the Tech offense tied for 121st in FBS by scoring on 66.7% of red-zone possessions. Thanks in no small part to kicker Brent Cimaglia, Tech’s situation isn’t nearly as dire as last year, but the matter — including play-calling, execution and penalties — continues to need addressing.

3. After upset, possibilities open

With a third of the season complete, Tech is 2-2 and 1-1 in the ACC. Had the Jackets been able to avoid its 22-21 loss to Northern Illinois — a fourth-and-goal pass into the end zone was ruled incomplete by literal inches, and it may actually have been a touchdown catch regardless — they would be 3-1. That would have made Tech a strong candidate to be ranked in this week’s top 25, which would have been its first appearance in the polls since early in the 2015 season.

Even more, the Jackets weren’t far off from upsetting then-No. 6 Clemson on Sept. 18. The difference was perhaps two plays, one a fourth-and-goal shovel pass in the final seconds that was stopped just shy of the goal line. Had they also gotten the job done in Clemson, they would be an improbable 4-0.

Regardless, looking down the road at the Jackets’ remaining eight games, outside of matchups with No. 2 Georgia and No. 12 Notre Dame, the schedule looks far less ominous than it did when the season began. Tech’s next games are home against Pitt (which, while beating Tennessee on the road, also lost at home to Western Michigan) and at Duke (which is 3-1 but hasn’t beaten anyone of note).

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Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins is dunked with Gatorade by players after 45-22 win over North Carolina Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins is dunked with Gatorade by players after 45-22 win over North Carolina Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins is dunked with Gatorade by players after 45-22 win over North Carolina Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A laughable notion to most after the Northern Illinois game, a bowl game (or even more) seems a reasonable possibility. Carter (three catches for 48 yards and a touchdown) said the team never doubted itself after the loss to the Huskies, trusting in themselves, the coaches and the work they had put in.

“We just knew that in order to gain respect, you’ve got to earn it,” he said. “That’s just what it is. Football’s a game measured on wins and losses, and at the end of the day, you want your respect in this league, you’ve got to win games.”

4. Defense coming together

While the act of containing Clemson’s offense seems to grow less impressive by the week, Tech’s defense has put together two convincing performances in a row. After holding Clemson to its fewest yards and points against an ACC opponent since 2014, the Jackets sacked quarterback Sam Howell eight times (the most by Tech since 2007 and the most allowed by the Tar Heels since at least 2000, according to sports-reference.com) and forced three turnovers, all fumbles extracted from Howell.

Tech played a second consecutive game in its 3-3-5 alignment, the structure in which Jackets defenders held running back Ty Chandler to 48 rushing yards (150 fewer than he gained against Virginia last week) and the Tar Heels to 63 rushing yards, a team low in Brown’s tenure of two-plus seasons.

Tech pressured Howell by virtue of linemen winning one-on-one battles (linebacker Charlie Thomas led with a career-high 2.5 sacks) and the secondary preventing Tar Heels receivers from getting open.

Linebacker Quez Jackson said that the defense has found its identity in the alignment.

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North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) is sacked by Georgia Tech defensive lineman Kyle Kennard (31) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) is sacked by Georgia Tech defensive lineman Kyle Kennard (31) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) is sacked by Georgia Tech defensive lineman Kyle Kennard (31) during the second half Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“I just think, of course, we changed up the scheme that fits the player types on our defense, so that’s what I kind of mean,” he said. “We found something that fits us and we’re able to capitalize on it and get better.”

Howell was asked how Tech’s 3-3-5 differed from Virginia’s version, which the Tar Heels shredded last week for 59 points and 699 yards.

“I just think they did a better job of being more physical,” Howell said. “That was definitely a more physical team than what we saw last week.”

5. Memorable night in the Benz

Tech fans in attendance likely won’t forget Saturday night, particularly if it does prove to be a pivotal game in Collins’ tenure. The smaller attendance configuration didn’t fill completely — attendance was 37,450, shy of the 42,500 capacity without the upper deck in use — but Mercedes-Benz Stadium was loud and energized by what took place on the field.

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Georgia Tech fans cheer for their team during the second half against North Carolina Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech fans cheer for their team during the second half against North Carolina Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Georgia Tech fans cheer for their team during the second half against North Carolina Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“It was just great to see all the Tech fans that were able to come out and pack this arena up,” Carter said. “You saw yellow — I mean, gold — all around the stadium. It was just great to see. They started doing the “Yellow Jackets!” chant, and it’s just echoing off the walls in there. It’s just a crazy experience when you come in and play a top-25 team that’s as good as North Carolina, and you put together a performance like this with the guys that you love, with the fans that you love.”

Even better for Tech, more than 100 recruits were at the game taking in the sights and sounds, including high-priority targets such as Zach Pyron, a senior quarterback from Pinson, Ala., Terrance Love, a junior safety from Langston Hughes High, and Zavion Hardy, a junior defensive lineman from Tattnall Square Academy. A dominating defensive performance and a dazzling offensive show, presented in a hyped-up atmosphere in a jewel of a stadium, along with the pitch that the Jackets will be playing one game annually in Mercedes-Benz for five more years, undoubtedly made for a persuasive presentation.

Collins expressed his thanks to fans and Tech students for their vocal support.

“Your recruits see it,” he said. “They see how we have relationships with our guys, the way our guys play, the way our guys vibe with each other and bond, and then to do it on this stage, is really cool.”