Defensively UNC forced two three-and-outs on the Yellow Jackets' opening four possessions and recovered a fumble on a third. The Tar Heels scored three touchdowns on their first four possessions and flipped position on the other one, pinning Georgia Tech on its own five-yard line.
UNC's momentum, however, died when Thomas Hibbard's 49-yard punt resulted in a touchback as the second quarter drew to a close. Quarterback Vad Lee (7-of-12 passing, 104 yards, TD; 55 rushing yards TD) directed Georgia Tech on a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to pull within 20-14 at halftime.
The second half was little more than an extension of that final first-half drive. Georgia Tech soaked up the clock with its methodical offense, wearing down UNC's defense while frustrating Bryn Renner (14-of-29 passing, 218 yards, 2 TD, INT) and his offensive counterparts on the sideline.
Over the final 35 minutes and 23 seconds, Georgia Tech held a 27:20-8:03 advantage in time of possession. The Yellow Jackets churned out 314 yards on 55 plays – 5.7 per play – during that stretch, while UNC ran 19 plays for 62 yards (3.2 ypp).
During one 22-minute, 20-second period stretching from the second quarter to the fourth, Georgia Tech scored more points (21) than UNC gained yards (19).
Offensively, UNC was limited to nine yards or less on three second-half possessions. The only lengthy drive (8 plays, 54 yards) resulted in a tipped ball interception.
"Some of it was shooting ourselves in the foot," UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the 28-20 loss. "We didn't make every catch that we needed to make, we didn't make every throw that we needed to make and we didn't make every block that we needed. They got more pressure on the quarterback and that was disappointing."
Renner agreed, saying, "We just didn't convert. We just couldn't find a rhythm in the second half."
Third down efficiency played a significant role in the lopsided time of possession numbers. UNC converted 4-of-6 to start before misfiring on all four third down attempts over the final 35 minutes and change. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, started 2-of-6 and finished the game by converting seven of its last 10 third down opportunities.
"We were poor, obviously, on our side," Fedora said of the third down issues. "You go three-and-out or whatever we were, that's pretty poor. And they did a nice job of moving the chains on their side. When you get them in a situation like that, that's what they're best at – three yards, four yards and moving the chains. You have to give them credit there."
Following last season's 68-50 shootout, associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning and his staff probably would have accepted 28 points on Saturday, considering how physical his defense played throughout. Fedora indicated that his defensive staff put the players in position to make plays.
"I thought our defense played extremely hard throughout the entire game," Fedora said. "Late in the game we started missing some tackles and that hurt us."
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin wasn't willing to blame the clock for the defense's struggles down the stretch.
"I wouldn't say we got worn down," Martin said. "They picked their play up a little bit and we started to match at the end of the third, but I think it just goes back to the missed tackles. That was the big thing for us in the second half."
North Carolina dropped to 1-3 against Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets when having more than a week to prepare.