"Both teams need a win," said North Carolina head coach John Bunting at Tuesday's press conference. "Every coach wants to win every game, but we have played a tough schedule to get us ready for this time of year. I know that Georgia Tech has won the last four times out (against Carolina), but I have only been here for one of them. We can't do anything about those three, or last year, but we can do something about this year."
The Yellow Jackets had to replace two-year starter George Godsey at quarterback this year, and Tennessee transfer A.J. Suggs (6-4, 215, Jr.) now directs the Tech offense.
Suggs has struggled at times, and did so last Saturday, with an 11-for-26, 117-yard performance in which he tossed three interceptions, at times drawing boos from the Tech crowd. Suggs, however, is completing 55.9 percent of his passes (47 of 88) for 586 yards in his first four games, and has four touchdowns against four interceptions.
"A.J. Suggs is not short on arm strength," Bunting said. "His timing was a little off last week due to some pressure, but he is a tremendous talent. I hope he is off against us."
Suggs has plenty of targets to throw to, including wide receiver Kerry Watkins (5-11, 189, Sr.), who has 17 catches for 353 yards (20.8-yard average) and one touchdown. He is second in the ACC in receiving yards per game and third in receptions per game.
Will Glover (5-10, 185, Sr.) has 10 catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Jonathon Smith (5-10, 189, Jr.) lit up the Tar Heels last year in Atlanta, catching eight passes for 86 yards and a touchdown as Tech ended UNC's five game winning streak. Nate Curry, who has been sidelined since re-injuring a knee this summer, returned to practice on Tuesday and may play this Saturday.
"All of their receivers are solid," said North Carolina cornerback Michael Waddell. "We have to come out with a game plan and get them from the start and stay on them."
In the biggest ACC story of the week, the season of Tech's tail back, Tony Hollings (5-11, 211, Jr.), ended as he was diagnosed with damage to knee ligaments following the Brigham Young game. Hollings was averaging 158 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry through the Brigham Young game, leading the nation in rushing.
"Any time you lose a back the caliber of Tony Hollings, it certainly affects your team," said Tech head coach Chan Gailey. "We're all disappointed for Tony because he had basically come out of nowhere to become the leading rusher in the nation."
Bunting said on Tuesday about Hollings' injury, "I feel bad for him and at some point I will get in touch with him and let him know that he can make it back from this." Bunting experienced a similar injury as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1978.
Likely to replace Hollings at tail back is true freshman Ajenavi "Ace" Eziemefe (6-1,225, Fr.), (pronounced ah-ja-NAH-vee eh-ZEM-eh-fay). Eziemefe had nine carries for 25 yards last week in relief of Hollings. Also available is Gordon Clinkscale (5-10, 192, Sr.), who has not had a carry in a game since he played in three games in 1999. He had 15 carries that year, 10 of which came in a Tech blowout of Navy. Another running back who might see action is Michael Sampson (6-1, 190, Fr.), also a true freshman. Sidney Ford (5-9, 205, Sr.) is not expected to play because of an injury.
Fortunately for Eziemefe and the other Tech backs, he will be running behind a solid offensive line. Tech has starting experience at every position except right tackle, where Kyle Wallace (6-4, 280, So.) is a first-year starter. Left tackle Nat Dorsey (6-6, 330, So.) left guard Leon Robinson (6-4, 315, So.) and center Hugh Reilly (6-4, 285, Jr.) are returning starters from last season, while right guard Raymond Roberts-Blake (6-2, 278, Sr.) now has 23 career starts, including every game in 2000. Dorsey earned first-team All-ACC honors as a freshman last year, and is on the Outland Trophy watch list as a sophomore.
Rounding out the offense are fullback Jimmy Dixon (6-1, 215, So.) and tight end John Paul Foschi (6-4, 270, Jr.). Loschi has four catches for 37 yards thus far this season.
Tech is averaging 376 yards per game, fifth in the ACC and 58th in the nation. Tech is third in the ACC in rushing offense and 27th in the nation, but it remains to be seen if the loss of Hollings will significantly impact the Tech's ability to run the ball. The Georgia Tech offense is a perfect 14-for-14 on red zone possessions, scoring 13 touchdowns and one field goal.
"They run a lot of formations and try and confuse the defense," Bunting said. "Chan Gailey is a very good coach and will run a lot of different things at us. He probably saw us not execute on defense on alignment and assignment against Texas and will try and test us in that department."
UNC defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said, "I still see some similarities from last year, what Coach [Bill] O'Brien (Tech's offensive coordinator) has done. There's some things that they're doing different that I'm sure Coach Gailey has brought with him."
Like the Tech offense, the Tech defense has taken a couple of hits lately.
Tech defensive end Greg Gathers, who lead the ACC in sacks last season, is out with an injury. Two Tech defenders, defensive end Hubie Holiday and cornerback Albert Poree, quit the team this week.
Bunting says of the loss of Gathers, "They had a significant injury with (Greg) Gathers going down the week before the BYU game. He is a great defensive end."
Despite those losses, the Yellow Jackets field a formidable defense. Tech leads the ACC and ranks 17th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 15.0 points per game. The Jackets are also 18th in the nation in pass efficiency defense (94.3), 27th in total defense (299.5 yards per game) and 37th in rushing defense (111.8 yards per game).
Brigham Young entered the Georgia Tech game averaging 35 points and 455 yards per game, and the Yellow Jacket defense held them to 19 points and 353 yards, including just 79 yards rushing. The Yellow Jackets forced four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble recovery) and had four sacks.
The linebacking corps may be the strength of the Tech defense, and is lead by Recardo Wimbush (6-2, 218, Sr.) a smallish linebacker who plays big. Wimbush currently leads Tech in tackles with 27, and has had two fumble recoveries. He has 308 career stops, which ranks 14th on Tech's career list. He also has recorded 27 tackles for loss to stand ninth in Georgia Tech history. Wimbush, who has started 41 straight games, has led the team in tackles in two of the last three seasons, averaging 94 per season entering 2002.
Wimbush and fellow Tech linebacker Daryl Smith (6-2, 230, Jr.) were both tabbed for the Butkus Award pre-season watch list. Smith, the Tech middle linebacker, suffered an elbow injury last season, and played much of the season with a brace. Smith was a preseason all-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team selection by The Sporting News.
Keyaron Fox (6-3, 230, Jr.) rounds out the linebacking corps, and is yet another returning starter for the Tech defense. He was Tech's second-leading tackler with 95 hits in 2001, recording eight tackles for loss and two sacks, four pass breakups and three quarterback hurries.
The three Tech linebackers are their leading tacklers this season. In addition to Wimbush's stats, Fox has recorded 24 tackles, four tackles for loss, and Smith has notched 24 tackles, five tackles for loss and one interception.
The defensive line will miss Gathers, but redshirt frosh defensive end Eric Henderson (6-3, 260, Rs-Fr.) had five tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup last week against Brigham Young. Henderson, used mostly in nickel situations, is only the backup to Fred Wright (6-4, 269, Sr.), who starts in the absence of Gathers.
On the other side of the line is Tony Hargrove (6-4, 260, So.), a rare new starter on a Tech defense that returns eight veterans, who was a backup in 2001 and was named co-ACC rookie of the week for his performance against N.C. State last year. He caused two fumbles in that game, including the one that Tech returned for a touchdown.
At the defensive tackle spots, Tech has returning starters Gary Johnson (6-1, 290, Sr.) and Alfred Malone (6-4, 290, So.) that form the center of the Tech defense. Johnson started every game at defensive tackle in 2001 and made 48 tackles and was third on the team with 10 tackles for loss and four sacks. Malone was particularly troublesome against the Tar Heels last year, recording a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and a quarterback pressure in the Tech win.
As good as the front seven is for the Yellow Jackets, they are also loaded in the secondary; lead by free safety Jeremy Muyres (6-3, 205, Sr.) a four-year starter for the Yellow Jackets. Muyres earned the ACC Defensive Back of the Week Award for his performance against Brigham Young. He recorded seven tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and two pass breakups against the Cougars. Muyres is a two-time all-Atlantic Coast Conference free safety and Tech's active leader with nine career interceptions.
Marvious Hester (5-11, 185, Sr.), another returning starter for Tech, was an honorable mention all-conference selection at cornerback last year and is second among active Yellow Jackets with six career interceptions. Hester is joined at corner by Jonathon Cox (5-10, 185, Jr.).
Rounding out the secondary is strong safety Cory Collins (6-0, 206, Sr.), yet another returning starter for Tech. Last year he was Tech's fourth-leading tackler with 74 hits, including four tackles for loss and also had two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Against the Tar Heels last year, Collins had an interception and a tackle for loss.
With a 3:30 kickoff, fans primed for the contest, the weather forecast appearing to cooperate and with Georgia Tech suffering some difficult personnel losses, there is good reason for UNC fans to be optimistic about this game.
The key to the outcome is the running game – for both teams.
The stat that leaps off the page from last year's UNC loss at Atlanta was the 17 carries for 13 net rushing yards the Tar Heels managed in the running game. The Heels will have to do much better than that in order to prevail on Saturday. Much, much, better.
North Carolina proved they can run the ball effectively against a good defense when the Tar Heels rolled up 173 yards rushing yards against Texas, a team noted for their stout run defense. Texas is yielding less than 100 yards a game rushing this season, and was sixth in the nation last year in rushing defense.
The Tar Heel offensive line appears to be coming into their own, and Tar Heel running back Jacque Lewis is establishing himself as a force in the running game – two factors not present in last year's miserable rushing performance.
The Tech offense has been fueled by their running game, and although Hollings is out, the studs that opened the holes for him on the offensive line are not. The Tar Heels fully expect that Tech will attempt to force-feed the football through the suspect North Carolina run defense, currently yielding 210 yards per game.
"Why wouldn't they? Absolutely," Huxtable said. "I expect Georgia Tech to come up here and try to run the football and we've got to do a better job of defending the run. Even in spite of the injuries, I think they'll still come up and try and run the ball."
As critical as is the running game for both teams, the turnover margin may actually decide the contest. The UNC offense has done a much better job of stopping themselves than have their opponents. The Tar Heels, in three games, have turned the ball over 13 times, for a negative 3.0 turnover margin. Many of those turnovers came while North Carolina was driving for a score.
If the North Carolina offense can avoid making a gift of the football to the Tech defense, it should move the ball effectively, despite the strong Tech defense. The North Carolina offense is stronger than the Clemson offense that put up 24 points against Tech.
The table may be set for a UNC victory, but the UNC defense has to grow up this Saturday, or it could be five straight losses at the hands of the Yellow Jackets.