Georgia Tech stuns North Carolina, a notable triumph as program looks to 2023

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Maybe Georgia Tech should pull a Costanza, skip that trip to Athens next week and leave this wretched season on a high note.

But that would be quitting, something that doesn’t happen under interim coach Brent Key. And his team’s unrelenting nature was rewarded with a win on a Saturday that will become a fond memory in an otherwise chaotic campaign with scant positives.

The Yellow Jackets upset No. 13 North Carolina in Chapel Hill 21-17 for the program’s most notable victory in years. What an unexpected, gratifying performance for players, coaches and fans who’ve endured myriad issues during a dark age in school history.

“I can’t say enough about these kids, what they’ve been through over the last two months and the resiliency they have,” said Key, a Tech alum. “You cannot go through more ups and downs than these kids have. You cannot have more adversity hit you in the face than these kids have in the game of football.”

Tech just played a massive role in the College Football Playoff and Heisman Trophy discussion. Say that aloud. The same school that fired its coach early in the season and has suffered five double-digit losses put itself on the national scale for something good.

The Jackets’ defense hounded Heisman candidate Drake Maye, whose quarterbacking excellence has turned UNC into a behemoth despite its defensive shortcomings. But even in a race without a front-runner, Tech might’ve cost Maye the Heisman. His pedestrian line: 16-for-30 passing, 202 yards with an interception.

Maye’s completions were a season low. His yards were a season low – his previous worst was 284 – and his 103.2 rating also was his lowest. Maye ran for 13 yards on 14 attempts, his worst game there, too. The Jackets sacked him a season-high six times. Maye even threw his first interception in 195 attempts when LaMiles Brooks picked him off to end a promising Tar Heels drive.

North Carolina scored more than 30 points in every game before Saturday. The Jackets even shut them out in the second half.

“All credit to Drake Maye, he’s a hell of a quarterback,” said defensive lineman Keion White, who had three sacks. “We knew he likes to scramble out of the pocket. So our plan as a D-line was to do more power moves and compress that pocket so he didn’t have a lot of places to go and put him under distress. I feel like we executed that really well.”

While Maye’s Heisman case is murky, here’s a certainty: Tech cost North Carolina a shot at the CFP. Its victory spoiled the best season the Tar Heels have enjoyed in decades. North Carolina needed to win out and get help; now it won’t need to worry about it.

It must be noted this was the second time that Key’s Jackets won on the road as three-touchdown underdogs. This time, the Jackets were in a 17-0 hole before rising to the occasion. Heck, they gave up an 80-yard touchdown on UNC’s first play on offense.

“We didn’t flinch at all,” quarterback Zach Gibson said of the early deficit. “I’m so proud of the guys, man. We fought our tails off for this one, and it felt so good.”

The moment of the night: North Carolina, down four, went for it on fourth-and-11 from the Tech 19 as time winded down. Maye found his superb receiver Josh Downs in the corner of the end zone, but an open Downs botched the catch.

Tech took over with 4:10 remaining. The Tar Heels never had another chance.

“The football gods were on our side today,” Key said. But is the Tech brain trust on his side?

The Jackets are now 4-3 under Key’s watch. The ousted Geoff Collins never won more than three games in any of his three full seasons. Key already has more wins over ranked teams (two) in seven games than Collins had in 38 (one).

No one knows what Tech will do. Interims rarely are the long-term answer. But even the greatest Key skeptic must wonder. Considering the circumstances, he’s done a commendable job. If Tech (5-6, 4-4 ACC) were playing a mediocre opponent instead of No. 1 Georgia next week, we’d be talking about bowl eligibility.

The players who easily could’ve taken their foot off the gas haven’t. This team cares. It hasn’t shown lapses in effort even when losing handily. It pulled off some gutsy performances, like the shoot-out victory in Blacksburg and the overtime win against Duke.

This team doesn’t overwhelm anyone with talent. The Jackets’ statistics are all middling or bad. Yet they’re 5-6. It’s evident that Key’s sermonizing is heard by more than football deities.

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

Key has won with multiple quarterbacks, including Jeff Sims, Zach Pyron and his two-man system of Gibson and Taisun Phommachanh that produced Saturday’s win. That isn’t exactly a list of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Joe Burrow. As we all know, quarterback stability is paramount, and Key hasn’t had that benefit.

Yet again, still …

“It starts with coach Key, he’s done a great job as the interim,” Phommachanh said. “He set the tone the first day when we found out what was going on. Ever since then, he’s rallied the troops. Shout-out to coach Key for being about the team and being about Georgia Tech.”

Key might not be the guy long term. But he’s helped guide his beloved program through a dark period and into presumed better days. His success has shown there’s an infrastructure to compete here. If the job isn’t his, it’ll still be all-the-more appealing to candidates because of his efforts.

Now that’s an alum giving back to his school.