Through the first half, the Tar Heels looked like they were about to be road kill for the 1930 Model A Ford Coup that drives out on the field to open the first and second halves at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Aside from an impressive opening drive, North Carolina was as flat as a possum that moved too slow on a rural Georgia blacktop.
“We had a great opening drive, and then we just stalled a little bit on the couple of drives left in the first half, I mean, they’re a great defense, we have to give them all the credit,” quarterback Bryn Renner said.
You could call it “stalling,” or you could call it coming to a screeching halt. Renner was just 4-of-9 for 36 yards (almost all of which came on the opening drive), and had one interception.
Down 17-7, the Tar Heels that left the field in the first half looked like a group that was about to be humiliated with a blowout loss. Even though there was only a 10-point deficit, you could see this game getting worse for the Tar Heels – a lot worse.
Interim head coach Everett Withers had a different message for his team in the locker room at halftime. “I came in the locker room and I said, ‘Guys, I love where we are right now,” Withers said. “We’ve got a chance to go out here and find out who we are.”
“He kept our heads up,” running back Gio Bernard said of Withers’ halftime talk. “We came out, had a good drive, we scored – it was just a matter of time on the clock, that’s what it came down to.”
Whatever Withers said, it looked like a different offense for much of the second half. Renner would complete 8-of-9 attempts in the Tar Heels' two opening drives, for 113 yards and two touchdowns. His one incompletion on those two series was a dropped pass.
“I think (offensive coordinator John) Shoop does a great job at making halftime adjustments," Renner said. "We talked about a lot of things, but we came out and just wanted to work Dwight (Jones) the ball - and he had a great day - we just tried to work the ball to Dwight and Gio (Bernard) as much as possible."
Improbably, the Tar Heel team that looked unable to get out of its own way for much of the first half was looking much more effective. North Carolina scratched its way back, and all of a sudden it was 28-28 in the fourth quarter.
“At that moment we were really excited from where we had came," offensive lineman James Hurst said. "We thought we’d be able to score points, but the first half it didn’t happen the way we thought it would. We came out there, we didn’t look at the scoreboard, put a drive together and then put another one together on top of that.”
Renner added, “We never got down on ourselves, which is good, and we can learn from that - we’re always in the ballgame, we feel that’s what we have as an offense – we can always score. When we came back and tied it up, I mean that was a big momentum swing for us, we just didn’t make enough plays to win.”
Yes, the Tar Heels lost, with Georgia Tech adding a touchdown and North Carolina attempting a miracle comeback to try knot the score once again. It was a failed effort, and it’s another in a long line of disappointing losses in Atlanta, but perhaps North Carolina fans found out something about this team.
“I don’t think anyone on the team quit,” Hurst said. “They just went out there and played as hard as they could, and knew if they did their job the other half of the ball was going to do theirs, and that’s what happened in the second half and we were really excited about that.”
There’s no such thing as a moral victory in football, there’s only the cruel reality of the scoreboard. But to mount a comeback to knot the score after what appeared to be headed to an ugly loss, is something this team can draw on the rest of this season.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this team,” Withers said. “I love this team. This is a heck of a football team. We’ve got a chance to be good.”