Combined, Georgia Tech and North Carolina ran 134 plays Saturday. Most of them – 76 – belonged to the Yellow Jackets’ offense, as is its wont. That unit is to football what a grist mill is to corn, designed to grind on and on and on without pause.
But all you need to know about this crystalline-blue afternoon is a single three-play sequence in the third quarter that defined one thorough victory. Three consecutive plays that summed up nicely the partnership of offense and defense that went into beating the Tar Heels 33-7.
This string of events didn’t start so well for the home team. The game was still in question, Tech in control of all aspects except the scoreboard, leading 10-0 with six minutes gone in the second half. Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall fumbled on a keeper up the middle. North Carolina linebacker Cole Holcomb recovered.
Paul Johnson stewed. “No read, no anything, just take care of the ball,” the Tech coach said afterward. “You can’t be squeezing it real tight if it gets kicked out like it got kicked out on that play.”
The turnover set up North Carolina near midfield, in position turn a tide. Instead, on the Tar Heels’ first play, safety A.J. Gray stepped in front of a slant pattern as if he were the intended receiver. Why, it was almost like that fumble had never happened, the Jackets regaining the ball at their own 37-yard line.
“I was very thankful. A.J. made a play and we got right back on the field and went down and scored,” Marshall said.
“We probably would have scored on that drive I fumbled on, but I really had to try to put it behind me and move on. I try to spark up the offense myself, if I’m down they’ll be down,” the quarterback said.
Then, before North Carolina had time to process the lost opportunity, B-back KirVonte Benson escaped around right end, patient as his blocking paved the road, and took the ball 63 yards for a stunning touchdown. From the jaws of a fumble just two plays earlier, Tech had wrested a 17-0 lead.
“Like coach Johnson always says, you got to hit it, attack the hole, it’s going to be there,” Benson said. “The linemen did a great job up front, especially off the edge. I just got to make one guy miss – and that’s exactly what I did, I got him off me. I saw (wide receiver Ricky Jeune) down the field blocking, I knew it was destined to be a touchdown.”
You can run a hundred and more plays in a game. But three can make all the difference.
“It was huge for A.J. to come right back and get that pick, and score the next play,” Johnson said. “At that point, the way the game was going, I thought 17 was a pretty good lead.”
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