Georgia Tech keeps accumulating evidence that its opening loss to Northern Illinois was a dip, not a dive. Losing a close game at Clemson last weekend was the first clue. Confirmation came Saturday night with a dominating victory over North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“That was pretty cool, huh?” Tech coach Geoff Collins said after the 45-22 victory over No. 21 UNC. “Great performance by our guys.”
True on both counts. This was the signature win Tech had been seeking since Collins was hired to move Tech past its triple-option era.
The Yellow Jackets earned their first victory over a ranked opponent since Nov. 11, 2017, against No. 17 Virginia Tech. Tech won that game by piling up 261 rushing yards with Paul Johnson’s trademark offense. The Jackets beat UNC with suffocating defense, which is how Collins made his name as a top assistant.
Some Jackets supporters were sour on the team after the loss to Northern Illinois. I couldn’t blame them. Collins and his staff spent all offseason promising that Year 3 would be better. I still figured it could happen. After all, the Jackets won as underdogs even as they made the ugly transition to modern offense and defense that’s more than an accessory.
Now the Jackets are 2-2, 1-1 in the ACC. They get Pitt at Bobby Dodd Stadium next weekend and are at Duke the week after that. They are probably even odds to win both games after they were two-touchdown underdogs against UNC. The Jackets have some momentum.
“If you can take adversity and use it for good, then that is something that galvanizes your program, galvanizes your team,” Collins said. “Just really proud of our guys being able to block out any negative, being able to focus and understand where we are as a program. Learn from our mistakes and take the next step.”
Georgia Tech 45, North Carolina 22
This was a big one. The Jackets were 0-5 against ranked opponents during Collin’s first two years as coach. They lost by margins of 38 and 66 points to Clemson. Georgia beat them by 45 and South Florida by 28. The closest those Tech teams played a ranked opponent was a 31-13 loss to Notre Dame last season.
The Jackets changed their fortunes Saturday against a ranked opponent by turning up their defense. They suffocated star quarterback Sam Howell. Tech’s defense set up 17 points by taking away two fumbles from Howell and stopping him on a fourth-down run. Tech quarterback Jeff Sims relieved Jordan Yates and ran for 130 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 112 yards with a score.
Tech’s 14-8 loss at Clemson last weekend signaled that its defense is on the come. That message was scrambled a bit when, just before Tech and UNC kicked off, Clemson lost at N.C. State in overtime. The Tigers had 184 yards and 14 points in regulation. Their offense is adrift without quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
The Tar Heels don’t have that issue. Howell is a top NFL prospect. Several skill players who helped Howell set records went to the NFL after last season. The Heels still had him and every top offensive lineman back. They lost 17-10 at Virginia Tech to open the season, then hung 59 points on both Georgia State and Virginia.
Howell and the Heels were on a roll coming to Atlanta. But it was clear from the start that they wouldn’t have their way with the Jackets like they did with Georgia State and Virginia. When Tech took a 35-14 lead that essentially put the game away, UNC had only 262 total yards on 55 plays (4.76 average) with two lost fumbles and a turnover on downs.
The Jackets ran down UNC’s plays on the perimeter. The Tar Heels couldn’t run the ball. Howell had few windows to pass and was sacked eight times. Tech forced two Howell fumbles in the first half and recovered both to set up scores.
The second led to a touchdown that put the Jackets up 13-7. Djimon Brooks knocked the ball loose from Howell. Demetrius Knight recovered it and had a clear lane to the end zone. He stumbled and fell at UNC’s 17-yard line. No worries for Tech. Two plays later Sims ran 11 yards for the score.
Tech still had the 13-7 lead at halftime. UNC’s first drive of the second half ended when the Jackets dropped Howell for a two-yard loss on fourth-and-1 at Tech’s 41-yard line. Sims ran for 38 yards to UNC’s 1-yard line then rushed for a TD on the next play. That put the Jackets up 20-7.
The Heels went three-and-out on their next possession. Tech responded with an eight-play, 81-yard TD drive. Sims was 4-for-4 for 60 yards. Jahmyr Gibbs ran four yards for a TD and 27-7 Tech lead.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The Heels were in trouble. They scored a TD on their second possession. Here’s how their seven possessions ended: punt, fumble, missed field-goal attempt, fumble, punt, turnover on downs and punt. Tech was making everything hard. The Heels desperately needed a score.
They got it with a 75-yard TD drive. Howell was 4-for-4 for 70 yards, including a seven-yard TD pass to Kamari Morales. UNC’s margin was down to two scores. The problem for the Heels was that, by then, Tech’s offense had found its footing with Sims at QB.
Sims moved Tech to UNC’s side of the field with a 12-yard pass to Gibbs and a 15-yard run. The Jackets came up three yards short on third down at UNC’s 38-yard line. Sims converted the fourth down with a an 8-yard pass to Kyric McGowan. He finished the drive on the next play with a fine back-shoulder throw to Malachi Carter for a 27-yard touchdown.
The Heels trailed 35-14. Howell set up another TD with a 63-yard pass to Emery Simmons. The Jackets answered with a field goal to push the lead to 38-22. It should have been a touchdown. Officials ruled Dontae Smith down after a 5-yard gain, but his knee never touched the ground.
It ended up not mattering. UNC wouldn’t score again. Sims added another touchdown run, for 50 yards. The Jackets slipped to start Collins’ third season, but now they are on their feet and off and running.
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