North Carolina (0-2, 0-1) and Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0) took turns moving the ball at will in the first half, as both teams scored on three consecutive possessions and neither punted prior to intermission. Casey Barth opened the scoring with a 20-yard field goal to give UNC a 3-0 lead before Georgia Tech A-back Orwin Smith took a pitch down the left sideline for a 73-yard touchdown run.
UNC quarterback T.J. Yates (18-of-24 passing, 209 yards, TD) sandwiched a 52-yard touchdown strike to Erik Highsmith and a one-yard touchdown run around a Roddy Jones 23-yard touchdown reception for the Yellow Jackets, and then Tech placekicker Scott Blair knocked through a 22-yard field goal to knot the score at 17 as the first-half clock expired.
Johnny White (17 carries for 115 yards, TD) set a new career high for rushing yards on a four-yard touchdown run to give North Carolina a 24-17 lead early in the third quarter, but Nesbitt tied the score with a one-yard touchdown run of his own and then the Yellow Jackets added two more field goals to secure their 11th victory in 13 tries against UNC.
INSIDE THE GAME
Offensive Highs and Lows
Offensive coordinator John Shoop found a smooth rhythm in UNC’s first four possessions against Georgia Tech, directing the Tar Heels to 24 points while totaling 285 yards on 30 plays, good for a 9.5-yards-per-play average.
After that opening stretch, however, Shoop lost that touch as North Carolina only managed 67 yards on 27 plays, good for a 2.5-yards-per-play average. To make matters worse, the Tar Heels committed more turnovers (2) than scored points (0) the rest of the game.
The momentum killer occurred midway through the third quarter. With North Carolina holding a 24-17 lead, the defense forced a punt and stopped the Yellow Jackets on downs in consecutive series, but the Tar Heel offense delivered a three-and-out and a lost fumble in two possessions with a touchdown lead.
“If you can go down and if you can make it more than a one-score ball game, it really enhances your opportunity ..." UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference. “It takes the ball out of the fullback’s hands some of the time. It makes them have to throw the ball a little bit more and do some things they don’t like to do.”
Porous Defensive Effort
It would be easy to write off North Carolina’s defensive effort on Saturday as a result of the NCAA investigation that has sidelined six starters on that side of the ball. But all any given team can do is play with its players on hand.
“We’ve got to move on from that,” linebacker Quan Sturdivant said. “We’ve got to play whoever we’ve got. We don’t really think about that. We had two weeks to prepare for them, so we’ve just got to get ready to play.”
“Discipline” was the buzz word around the Kenan Football Center since Labor Day, but those problems still proved detrimental against quarterback Josh Nesbitt (26 rushes for 122 yards, TD; 3-of-4 passing for 76 yards, TD) and the Yellow Jackets’ multi-faceted rushing attack.
“Just missed assignments, really,” Sturdivant replied when asked about Georgia Tech’s success on the ground. “Guys just not playing to assignments. We got out-leveraged a couple of times on the pitch and they got some big runs in the beginning of the game.”
While having a full allotment of players would have undoubtedly made a huge difference in defending Paul Johnson’s offensive scheme, it’s worth noting that defensive coordinator Everett Withers has struggled in each of the past three seasons against Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets churned 448 total yards of offense on Saturday, including 372 yards on the ground, for an average gain per play of 6.7 yards. In the past three meetings between these programs, Georgia Tech is averaging 425.7 total yards and 338.3 rushing yards per game – good for a 5.7 yards per play average.
Rough Start to a Senior Season
Senior tight Zack Pianalto was a beaten down young man following North Carolina’s loss to LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Sept. 4. Yates’s final two passes from the six-yard line were thrown in Pianalto’s direction, but the Springdale, Ark. native was unable to bring either of the balls in.
"If I make that play, we win the game,” Pianalto told reporters in Atlanta two weeks ago. “I'm such a competitive person and I feel I could have won it for us, and I didn't."
On Saturday, Yates again went to his safety valve on a 2nd-and-4 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter with North Carolina trailing 27-24 near midfield. Pianalto (seven catches for 62 yards) caught the pass and turned to his left to head up field, but Steven Sylvester knocked the ball loose and Rod Sweeting recovered the fumble on UNC’s 45-yard line.
The Yellow Jackets then took 5:28 off the clock in driving 25 yards for Scott Blair’s 36-yard field goal that delivered the final margin.
“That’s a cardinal sin,” Pianalto said of his fumble. “You just can’t lose the turnover battle… That’s why I’m so disappointed in myself for letting that happen. I take full responsibility for it. T.J. got the ball to me and I turned up field. I thought I had a little bit of a play, maybe a first down, and it just so happens the guy made a good play and knocked it out.
“I’ve got to be better with the ball. I’ve got to hold it higher and tighter and we’ve got to improve as an offense with ball security.”
Back Page Stat of the Game
Sophomore wide receiver Jhay Boyd shined under the bright lights against LSU, pulling in six receptions for 221 yards and a touchdown. But against Georgia Tech, Boyd’s first offensive touch came on a reverse with only three minutes remaining in regulation. The Gastonia, N.C. native was pushed out of bounds for a two-yard loss on that play.
“They were doing a good job of putting two guys over him, staying deep on him and really taking him out of the game,” Yates said. “They did a good job with that.”
Entering this season, North Carolina had never lost a ball game 30-24 in its 122-year history of playing football. The Tar Heels have now accomplished that feat two weeks in a row, marking the first time UNC has lost by the same score in consecutive weeks in school history.