On a day in which North Carolina (3-8, 2-5) set a variety of school and conference offensive records, offensive coordinator John Shoop’s unit bogged down in Georgia Tech territory over and over again. Quarterback T.J. Yates (21-of-35 for 283 yards and a touchdown) drove the Tar Heels inside the Yellow Jackets’ 25-yard line on five different occasions, netting a total of 12 points.
“We definitely have to do a better job with our red zone offense,” Yates said. “We had four field goals that should have been touchdowns. They did a good job with their goal line defense and everything, but we’ve just got to convert."
North Carolina finished with 362 total yards – thanks in part to Greg Little’s 89 yards from the running back spot – but were only 1-of-13 on third-down conversions.
Georgia Tech’s Tashard Choice (142 rushing yards on 33 carries) and Taylor Bennett (13-of-passing for 196 yards and a touchdown) did just enough in leading their squad to 438 total yards of offense to squeak out their seventh win of the season.
North Carolina’s average starting field position in the second was its 42-yard line, and Georgia Tech (7-4, 4-4 ACC) turned the ball over four times – three times in the second half – but the Tar Heels were unable to capitalize on enough of those opportunities to pull out the victory. UNC has now lost six games this season by a combined 26 points, leading to a lot of frustration in the locker room.
“There will be a lot of guys that don’t sleep tonight, and maybe that’s what this program, what this coaching staff needs,” head coach Butch Davis said. “It’s something that just burns so deeply in your heart that you’re willing to do all of those extra things in the next 8-10 months before the season starts to ensure the fact that those things don’t happen again.”
Georgia Tech led 17-9 entering the fourth quarter, but Yates quickly answered with a 14-yard strike to Hakeem Nicks, who finished with seven receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown. The Tar Heels would miss the two-point conversion, and the Yellow Jackets drove back down the field, as backup quarterback Josh Nesbitt connected with Greg Smith on a 40-yard touchdown pass play.
That’s when things got interesting.
Deunta Williams returned a pooch punt 29 yards to the UNC 45-yard line with 10:43 remaining, setting up a Connor Barth 32-yard field goal – his fourth of the day. The Wilmington, N.C. senior also connected from 42, 21 and 39 yards en route to breaking Josh McGee’s school record of 52 made field goals in a career. Barth now has 54.
Down 24-18 with 8:40 remaining, the North Carolina forced two fumbles – one at the Tech 32-yard line, another at the 2-yard line – setting the offense up for scoring chances. But a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Tate was called back due to a holding call, killing the first drive, and Anthony Elzy dove into the end zone from one yard out on the next series to put the Tar Heels up 25-24.
Shoop’s unit entered Saturday’s game converting touchdowns in the red zone only 44 percent (11-of-25) of the time. That statistic took a nosedive in the first half against Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels had eight opportunities inside the Yellow Jackets’ 8-yard line and managed just three points total on both possessions.
Each series played out in similar fashion – two runs that failed to break the goal line, followed by pass plays to the left side of the end zone. Tight end Richard Quinn dropped a sure touchdown on the first drive, followed by a pass breakup on fourth down, and then a fade route to Nicks was broken up on the next third down play.
“It’s frustrating, but at the same time, you’ve got to look at it like it’s a football game and anything can happen,” Nicks said. “We would like to come out with a touchdown, but we came out with three points, which was good, just not as good as we expected.”
Georgia Tech, on the other hand, capitalized on both of their red zone journeys during the first 30 minutes. Head coach Chan Gailey provided some offensive trickery with Choice’s 17-yard halfback pass completion to Bennett for a touchdown, and Travis Bell added a 33-yard field goal to give the Yellow Jackets a 10-6 halftime lead.
Brandon Tate set an ACC record in career kickoff return yards following his 46-yard return in the first half. The junior now has 2,360 yards in less than three full seasons, but he wasn’t the only Tar Heel to join Barth in the record books – Yates now owns the single-season school mark for passing yards with 2,586, surpassing Darian Durant’s 2,551 record set in 2003.