“Our offense had no chance in those situations where our defense just stays out there, stays out there and they grind us up,” said head coach John Bunting following the loss.
This makes the decision to punt the ball on a fourth-and-four down 34 to 24 with less than four minutes remaining even more mystifying. For Bunting, it will be the question that won’t go away.
The North Carolina defense defies explanation. “We’ve just got to keep trying to get those young kids better and play better this next week against Duke,” said Bunting. The Tar Heels are young on defense, but after nine previous games, it is not unrealistic to expect those youthful defenders to impact the productivity of the defense.
Two true freshmen, Isaiah Thomas and Shelton Bynum start at defensive tackle, two players with a lot of talent. Chase Page’s move to defensive end has been a good one for the Tar Heels. Victory Worsley, a red-shirt freshmen moved to defensive end only a few games ago, showed a lot of ability at his new position. Worsley had the only sack for the Tar Heels. Madison Hedgecock has had the best games of his career at defensive end the last two games. True freshman Larry Edwards has been a significant upgrade at weak side linebacker. At the strong side linebacker spot, Jeff Longhany was second on the team in tackles. Safeties Dexter Reid and Mahlon Carey recorded double digit tackles for the Tar Heels. Lionell Green, a heralded junior college transfer, made two phenomenal pass break-ups.
The bottom line is that there is talent out there on the field in light blue. While some of that talent is young, inexperience and youth cannot alone explain the inability of the Tar Heel defense to get off the field, and in particular to mount a pass rush or hold any ball carrier to less than five yards a carry. Not only is it unexplainable, it is inexcusable.
Again, the stat line is disheartening – 298 yards given up on the ground, 446 yards of total offense allowed – but the stat line this week doesn’t begin to reflect how futile North Carolina’s defense appeared as Georgia Tech ground out yards in the second half.
“We’ll learn to be more competitive, learn to be stronger, learn exactly how to fit plays and take on people,” said Bunting. Tar Heel fans are beginning to wonder exactly “when” that will be. After ten games, the Tar Heel defense is as porous as it was when it began the season.
Adding fuel to the fire of defensive criticisms, there is a lot of youth on the offensive side of the ball as well. Ronnie McGill, a true freshman, had over 100 yards of total offense, rushing for 95 yards and catching two passes for 24 yards. Mike Mason, another true freshman, made a spectacular catch of 49 yards to set up a touchdown. Jon Hamlet has played well as true freshmen, as have classmates Jessie Holley and Adarius Bowman. It is true that at quarterback and on the offensive line, the Tar Heels have more experience.
On this day, two turnovers marred what was otherwise an inspired performance, one of those turnovers marked the turning point in the game.
The Tar Heels’ first possession of the fourth quarter began as the Yellow Jackets had taken a 20-17 lead. North Carolina drove the ball off their own 20-yard line, fueled by a McGill run of 35-yards. With first and ten at the Tech 29, Jacque Lewis broke into the secondary only to have linebacker Keyaron Fox punch the ball out of his arms from behind. Georgia Tech recovered the ball at their 14-yard line and marched 86 yards for a touchdown. Tech went up 27-17 and never looked back. The Tar Heels would score again, but the turnover represented a 14-point turnaround.
Darian Durant, who had not been particularly sharp against Wake Forest, was back in form completing 65 percent of his passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 29 yards rushing, giving him over 300 yards of total offense.
In the absence of Chad Scott, who was still recovering from last week’s injury, the tandem of McGill and Jacque Lewis emerged as an effective combination. Lewis has a different style of running than McGill and is a good receiver out of the backfield. Lewis’s fumble was the result of a great play by Fox, rather than carelessness on his part.
The increased effectiveness of the Tar Heel running game has made play-action passes a weapon in this offense.
This section of my review would look very different had the Yellow Jackets not put the game out of reach with a punt return for a touchdown with 3:39 left in the game. Otherwise, the Tar Heels special teams performed well. Woolridge continued to punt well (44.0 average), and Dan Orner did his part by connecting on his only attempt of the day.
Even more importantly, why did the Tar Heels punt at all?
In the second half alone, the Yellow Jackets had three drives of over four minutes. On their previous possession, they had used up over three minutes on what was a “quick-strike” drive for Georgia Tech.
The special teams and the offense have to be nearly perfect for the Tar Heels to win. The punt return for the touchdown, though a special teams breakdown, had no effect on the outcome of the game. Had the Yellow Jackets taken over the ball at their 27 (where the punt receiver caught the ball), they would have simply ran out the final three minutes of the game.
Bunting’s answer was, “I wanted to see if we could go out there and stop them on a long field and get the ball back.”
The answer was mystifying, and the question is likely to resurface many times over the next week.
The season wraps up in Kenan Stadium against Duke. Since defensive coordinator Ted Roof took over for fired head coach Carl Franks, the Blue had been more competitive before Saturday’s 40-7 rout by the Clemson Tigers.