North Carolina (3-1) started the scoring with a Gio Bernard 4-yard touchdown run on its first possession, marking the third time in four games that UNC has put seven on the board in its opening series.
Goergia Tech (4-0) dominated the remainder of the first half, however, rolling up 272 yards of offense while holding UNC to just 30 yards. Justin Moore drilled the first of his two field goals (40, 36) to cut the Yellow Jackets' deficit to 7-3, and then Tevin Washington (10-of-14 passing, 184 yards, TD) connected with a wide-open Stephen Hill (6 catches, 151 yards, TD) for a 59-yard touchdown pass – Tech's seventh one-play scoring drive this season.
Roddy Jones (59 yards, TD) added a two-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds remaining before halftime to give Georgia Tech a 17-7 lead.
Moore's second field goal increased that margin to 20-7 five minutes into the third quarter, but UNC answered 130 seconds later as Bryn Renner (17-of-25 passing, 204 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) found Nelson Hurst alone in the right corner of the end zone from six yards out. Washington's one-yard scoring plunge and a two-point conversion increased the Yellow Jackets' lead to 28-14 with 1:26 left to play in the third quarter.
Renner threw a second scoring strike to a tight end – this time to Eric Ebron from 20 yards out – to close the gap to 28-21. UNC's defense forced Georgia Tech to punt on its next two possessions, and Bernard (17 carries, 155 yards, 2 TD) capitalized with a 55-yard touchdown run to tie the score.
The Yellow Jackets quickly responded as Jones's 48-yard run down the left sideline set up Washington's five-yard touchdown run.
UNC failed to match Georgia Tech on its next two possessions against increased defensive pressure as the game ended with the Tar Heels standing on their 39-yard-line.
The Yellow Jackets outgained North Carolina, 496-332, and won the time of possession battle, 36:07 to 23:53. Both teams committed two turnovers.
INSIDE THE GAME
Groh Emerges Victorious Again
North Carolina hasn't experienced much success against Al Groh's 3-4 defensive scheme over the years. Entering this weekend's matchup, the Tar Heels had averaged just 13 points a game in their last eight meetings with the second-year Georgia Tech defensive coordinator.
Offensive coordinator John Shoop had only been in Chapel Hill for half of those games, but his units' production were equally as unimpressive. Any success Shoop has had against Groh usually occurred in the opening 30 minutes of play before halftime adjustments rendered UNC's offense ineffective.
On Saturday, Groh didn't even allow Shoop to enjoy the full first half. After a solid opening drive – UNC drove 63 yards in eight plays – the Tar Heel offense grinded to a halt, totaling 30 yards on 17 plays and as many first downs as interceptions (1) in the final six possessions of the half.
Considering Shoop's offenses had only managed 26 second-half points in four previous meetings against Groh's defense, the outlook didn't look much better for the final 30 minutes of action. But North Carolina responded with a critical 10-play, 62-yard touchdown drive to answer a Georgia Tech field goal that increased the Yellow Jackets' lead to 20-7 early in the third quarter.
The Tar Heels eventually knotted the score at 28, thanks to averaging 12.8 yards per play on its first four second-half possessions.
The wheels came off again during UNC's final two drives, however. Georgia Tech tallied four of its seven sacks in the final 5:12, disrupting the little bit of momentum that the Tar Heels had working in their favor.
"They basically played a defense there at the end, and really on third down, where they were all standing up – the defensive line – in what we call a radar defense," UNC head coach Everett Withers told reporters in his postgame interview. "And you don't know which one's coming, the fourth rusher. We had the protection a couple of times and felt like Bryn could have gotten rid of the ball a few times, but for the most part, it was tough on a young quarterback."
Withers preached all week long about how Georgia Tech's yardage didn't matter and that it would take a complete team effort to pull out a road victory on Saturday. That mantra filtered down through his defensive players during mid-week media availability, and it finally re-emerged once again in postgame interviews in the bowels of Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"I've said it all week long – this is not about yards," Withers said. "This game is not about yards. This game is about making them kick three and we just didn't make them kick three enough."
Defensive end Quinton Coples echoed his coach's comments, saying, "We knew they were going to gain yards, so that wasn't our objective. Our objective was to keep them out of the end zone and no more than three points a possession."
So while it wasn't a huge surprise that Withers was pleased with his defense's performance or that Coples thought his side of the ball did a "great job" on Saturday, it still begs the question of why the North Carolina coaching staff is resigned to accept 496 total yards, 312 rushing yards and 35 points – the most in a loss since N.C. State dropped 41 on UNC in '08.
The Tar Heels forced two turnovers and tallied seven tackles for loss, as well as coming up with a pair of crucial stops in the fourth quarter. And it's also important to note that starting linebacker and leading tackler Zach Brown only played on special teams due to disciplinary issues, but Georgia Tech averaged 6.9 yards per play and totaled 14 plays that gained 10 yards or more.
Give Paul Johnson credit for a slick offensive scheme, but North Carolina's talent-laden defense should be held to a higher standard of success.
Breaking Down a Busted Play
With Georgia Tech trailing 7-3 early in the second quarter, Paul Johnson took advantage of a North Carolina defensive switch to strike for an easy seven points.
Stephen Hill lined up right on 1st and 10 at the Yellow Jackets' 41-yard-line, and UNC cornerback Charles Brown matched up with the 6-foot-5, 200-pounder. But as the ball was snapped, Brown moved up into run support and safety Brian Gupton was responsible for rolling over the top to cover Hill.
Gupton was slow in responding, however, and Washington found Hill wide open down the sideline for an easy score. That touchdown marked Tech's seventh one-play scoring drive of the season.
"They were able on the quick dive pass to slip the wide out past the safety that's supposed to overlap," Withers said. "Safety gets short, touchdown pass."
To make matters worse, Georgia Tech caught UNC napping on the exact same setup while holding a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter. On 2nd and 7 at North Carolina's 46-yard-line, Brown once again switched off Hill into run support, but this time it was Jonathan Smith that was burned down the right sideline.
Fortunately for Smith, Hill dropped an easy touchdown pass that would have moved Georgia Tech back in front by 14 with roughly 10 minutes to play.
"Those are just communication plays," sophomore corner Tre Boston said. "They were nothing big; nothing we couldn't fix. I feel like those should have been fixed. We made the first mistake [and] we talked about it. The next one was just going off adrenaline, trying to make plays and not noticing what's going on."