With Georgia Tech primed for a letdown and North Carolina’s collective backs plastered against the wall, the Tar Heels defense came of age on Saturday. Their special teams played virtually mistake free. And their offense fed off a surprisingly energetic crowd to upset the visiting Yellow Jackets, 34-13, and at least temporarily put to rest rumors of head coach John Bunting’s demise.
“This game was a tribute to our coaching staff and our players,” Darian Durant said. “We didn’t get down after the Virginia game. We knew what we were capable of doing and we came out and we executed.”
The Tar Heels are 2-1 for the first time since 2000 and 2-0 at home for the first time since 2001. Carolina moved to 1-1 in the ACC, while Tech fell to 2-1 overall and 1-1 in the conference.
It was Carolina’s first win over the Yellow Jackets since Bunting was named the coach and its first since 1997.
“We played Georgia Tech fairly tough in the fourth quarter and came up empty three years in a row,” Bunting said. “This year we were finally able to pull one out against them.”
While the Kenan Stadium announced attendance of 46,250 fans was frenzied for most of the game, former UNC defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta – now at Tech – was going ballistic. From the photo deck, one level below the press box, his tirades resonated much like Bunting’s did a week ago in Charlottesville following Carolina’s 56-24 defeat at the hand of 16th ranked Virginia.
While it could hardly be considered ironic, three years and four days ago Bunting found himself in at least a related predicament. In his first season at the helm in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels found themselves with a 0-3 record and due to face sixth-ranked Florida State in their home opener. Carolina won that game 41-9, in perhaps the school's biggest victory since the implementation of facemasks.
“In a couple of ways I talked to the football team about that this afternoon,” Bunting said. “I mentioned that to them right before we departed. That’s when I talked about Jacque Lewis, a guy who is going to be a great man someday. I think some guys grew up a little bit today and now we can see if we can do it again next week.”
Lewis was a man today all right. The senior tailback took over for an injured Ronnie McGill and rushed for a career-high 161 yards and two touchdowns. It was his second 100+ yard game this season and the third of his career.
“We know the kind of talent we need to win,” Lewis said. “We went into the game knowing we had to win. We had a bad game last week, offensively and defensively. We came out and practiced hard this week and we played hard this week.”
But the story was the play of the Carolina defense. After giving up 549 yards of offense against Virginia and being the butt of endless ridicule from the media and their fans, the Tar Heels rebounded to hold Tech to 393 yards – not a great total – but more than enough to mark a substantial turnaround.
More importantly, UNC held the Yellow Jackets to just 13 points, enough for a 21-point victory – the Tar Heels’ largest margin in an ACC game since beating Duke, 52-17, on Nov. 17, 2001.
“I told the guys before the game that team shouldn’t score more than 14 points against us,” senior safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. “The defense just came to play.”
Despite giving up 103 yards in the first quarter and turning the ball over twice, Carolina survived the first quarter down just 6-0. The biggest stop came from Alden Blizzard with Tech ahead 3-0 and facing a 3rd and 4 at the UNC 9-yard line. The Yellow Jackets had to settle for a field goal, and the Carolina defense would force them to do so again on their next possession.
Something was building, but it was not apparent at that point.
Then it happened. It wasn’t Christmas, but it may as well been as Jacoby Watkins recorded the Tar Heels’ first interception in 11 games and only their third in 14 contests when he wrestled the ball away from Tech freshman Calvin Johnson on a deep pass that would have given the Yellow Jackets a 1st and 10 at the UNC 3. Instead, a delayed call by the official gave the Tar Heels possession and an incredible momentum shift.
“We had several opportunities and we just couldn’t do it,” Tech coach Chan Gailey said. “We have to give them credit; they played well and we didn’t.”
Carolina, which entered the game with a league-worst minus-6 turnover ratio, went on to intercept two more passes and recover a fumble on the last play of the game in which true freshman Hilee Taylor returned for a 21-yard touchdown.
In all, the Tar Heels forced five Georgia Tech turnovers, their highest total
since forcing five at Arizona State in 2002. UNC had three interceptions – two by Jacoby Watkins and one by Fred Sparkman – for the first time since the 2000 Duke game.
Durant overcame two first quarter interceptions to finish 10 of 23 passing for 142 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown pass to Adarius Bowman in the third quarter that gave the Tar Heels a 28-13 lead.
“Guys really went at it this week and worked in practice,” said Bowman. “The defense went in, watched film, corrected their mistakes, came out today and played like champs. That’s what we need for the rest of this year.”