Georgia Tech rolls to upset of No. 21 North Carolina

Georgia Tech offensive lineman Paula Vaipulu celebrates after beating North Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Georgia Tech offensive lineman Paula Vaipulu celebrates after beating North Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Taking the stage inside Atlanta’s $1.5 billion sports jewel, Georgia Tech shined in a way it had not done in the first 25 games of coach Geoff Collins’ two-plus seasons.

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Bottling up No. 21 North Carolina’s high-octane offense and generating offense in the return of quarterback Jeff Sims, the Yellow Jackets overwhelmed the Tar Heels 45-22 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We’ve had to undergo a lot of adversity,” Collins said, “but we were built for nights like this because of what we’ve been through and the way the leadership in the program has continued to build and build and build, and we’ve got to continue to do that at a really high level.”

Tech handed Collins his first win at Tech over a ranked team, breaking the team’s overall nine-game losing streak to teams in the Top 25. The Jackets’ rapacious defense led the effort, creating three turnovers, two in a pivotal second quarter that were converted to 10 points.

“I thought (defensive coordinator) Andrew Thacker and our defensive staff did a heck of a job vs. one of the top offenses in America,” Collins said. “Stopped the run, forced them to throw, made them single-handed there at the end, and just really proud of coach Thacker and the defensive staff and our defensive players.”

Taking the field as 14-point underdogs and given a 23% probability of pulling the upset by ESPN’s metrics, the Jackets put on a show for the 37,450 in attendance and a large number of prospects invited to the game, the first of a six-game series at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Just as the near upset of then-No. 6 Clemson the previous Saturday gave indication that Collins’ third team had made significant progress from his first two teams, the Jackets’ performance against the Tar Heels served only to solidify that perception.

After Tech held Clemson to its lowest point (14) and yardage (284) totals against an ACC opponent since 2014, the Jackets (2-2, 1-1 ACC) thwarted the Tar Heels (2-2, 1-2) and quarterback Sam Howell.

North Carolina scored 59 points and averaged 653 yards in its previous two games, wins over Georgia State and Virginia. The Tar Heels finished with 369 yards, trailing Tech’s 394. The 23-point margin of victory was the most decisive in the second tenure at North Carolina for coach Mack Brown, who took over the Tar Heels in 2019, the same year that Collins started at Tech.

Georgia Tech 45, North Carolina 22

Of the Tech defense’s three turnovers – all forced fumbles of Howell, created by defensive ends Jordan Domineck and Jared Ivey and defensive tackle Djimon Brooks – the first two were returned deep into North Carolina territory by linebackers Quez Jackson and Demetrius Knight, respectively, one setting up a field goal and the second a touchdown. Both were in the second quarter in which the Jackets turned around a 7-0 deficit to a 13-7 halftime lead.

“Really, really disappointed in the way we played, and credit Georgia Tech,” Brown said. “They played well. They played well defensively from the start. Our first half was awful offensively.”

Sims came in for starter Jordan Yates with 3:23 remaining in the second quarter with Tech trailing 7-6 after the Jackets had settled for field goals in which they had first-and-goal from the 10 in both drives. Sims scored on an 11-yard keeper, giving the Jackets a lead at 13-7 that they would not relinquish.

Sims, who had waited behind Yates since leaving the season-opening loss to Northern Illinois with an injury to his left arm, was both dynamic and efficient in making plays with his arm and legs. With questions looming about his accuracy, he was on-target as he completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown and also ran 10 times for a career-high 128 yards and three touchdowns, also a career high. The last was a game-icing 50-yard run with 1:13 remaining, the game’s final score.

“Sims came in and did a tremendous job,” Brown said. “Second half, we couldn’t stop him.”

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Georgia Tech's wide receiver Kalani Norris (5) is not able to catch under pressure from North Carolina's defensive back Tony Grimes (20). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech's wide receiver Kalani Norris (5) is not able to catch under pressure from North Carolina's defensive back Tony Grimes (20). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Georgia Tech's wide receiver Kalani Norris (5) is not able to catch under pressure from North Carolina's defensive back Tony Grimes (20). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Perhaps his throw of the night was a laser down the left sideline to wide receiver Malachi Carter for a 27-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter that answered a UNC touchdown and increased the lead (after a two-point gadget-play conversion pass from receiver PeJé Harris to tight end Dylan Leonard) to 35-14 with 13:52 left in the fourth quarter.

“I was prepared for the game,” Sims said. “I just knew that my time was going to come, and I just told myself, ‘Just go out there and be you. Lean into God, pray before the game and just pray that his will be done.’”

Tech’s defense met the challenge of slowing the Tar Heels offense. The Jackets sacked Howell a stunning eight times (linebacker Charlie Thomas had 2.5 and defensive end Kyle Kennard had two), as effective play up front combined with strong coverage on the back end. Howell finished 25-for-39 for 306 yards and two touchdowns.

“We just knew we had to really put pressure on him because he can beat you both with his arms and his legs,” said linebacker Quez Jackson, who led the Jackets with 10 tackles, all solo. “We knew we had to maintain our leverage and keep him contained in the game.”

Thomas continued his strong play this season, piling up eight tackles – a career-high 4.5 for loss – as he was a playmaking force as Tech stayed in its 3-3-5 look that it debuted against Clemson last week.