The Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2 ACC) broke open a defensive struggle late in the third quarter by forcing a pair of Yellow Jacket turnovers on back-to-back possessions. Matt Merletti recovered a Roddy Jones muffed punt and six plays later, Ryan Houston (74 yards and 2 TD on 12 carries) charged over rover Morgan Burnett for a 2-yard touchdown run to put North Carolina up 14-0.
The Matthews, N.C. sophomore added a 3-yard scoring run three minutes later, thanks to a Robert Quinn forced fumble of backup quarterback Jaybo Shaw on the Tech 32-yard line. In all the Tar Heels forced three turnovers, including Trimane Goddard’s sixth interception of the season, and committed none, boosting their season turnover margin to plus-13.
Houston and Shaun Draughn (90 yards on 17 yards) combined for 164 yards with a 5-5 yards per carry average.
“Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston were equally effective and a big part of the game, being able to run the football and move the chains and make some first downs and punish the defense a little bit,” head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Georgia Tech (7-3, 4-3 ACC) looked as though its unique offense would be able to put points up on the scoreboard, but the Tar Heel defense continued to excel in its ability to get stops when opposing offenses get into scoring range.
“Honestly, we moved the ball, but we just couldn’t get any points,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “I looked and in the first half we had double the first downs and had almost double the time of possession, but we couldn’t get any points.”
The Yellow Jackets entered this weekend as the ACC’s top rushing team (242.3 yards per game) with an offense featuring the triple option, and they only added to those statistics on Saturday, chewing up 326 rushing yards and 423 total yards. But Georgia Tech managed five drives of over 46 yards and was only able to capitalize with seven points, which came in the fourth quarter on a Jonathan Dwyer 85-yard touchdown jaunt.
The sophomore B-back totaled 157 yards on the day, but that late run was an exception, not the rule, on this day for the standout running back.
Senior linebacker Mark Paschal led all tacklers with 10, while fellow linebacker Quan Sturdivant added eight. The fact that the second line of defense had such productive afternoons is a compliment to the defensive line, as the front four frustrated Josh Nesbitt (10-of-22 for 97 yards and one interception) all day long.
“I don’t know what the stat sheet shows, and they probably won’t get credited with very many tackles, but their ability to gobble up blocks and to hold the line of scrimmage and to be consistent and not want to jump off the fullback and try to make some plays was a big key to it,” Davis said of his defensive line.
Georgia Tech’s front seven was just as effective, harassing Cam Sexton into completing just 7 of his 16 passes for 100 yards, although his first touchdown pass – a 5-yarder to Zach Pianalto – put North Carolina on the board on its opening drive. The Tar Heels had 314 yards of total offense, despite converting just 4 of its 14 third-down attempts.
“We game planned for it and we definitely made some adjustments, but I don’t know if we’ve faced a better pass rush,” Sexton said. “They were good and I’m not about to sit here and make excuses because you’re going to play good people like that. Those two ends are probably big-time NFL caliber players. We were just really able to run the ball, which was key for us.”
Sexton’s second touchdown pass came on a 4th-and-2 play late in the game, with the Tar Heels leading 21-7. The Yellow Jackets were expecting Houston to pound the ball in the middle of the defense, so Sexton used play action to connect with Hakeem Nicks (3 catches for 72 yards, TD) behind the Tech safety for an easy 31-yard score.
Nicks’ final catch of the day - from T.J. Yates in his first series of work since fracturing his ankle against Virginia Tech -- earned him the UNC career receiving yardage record with 2,472 yards, surpassing the 2,447 yards compiled by Corey Holliday from 1989-93.
“It makes me feel good, but I want to remain humble and hopefully keep doing what I do out there and stay blitzed,” Nicks said when asked about the record.
Saturday's victory moves UNC to 7-2, assuring the Tar Heels of a winning record for the first time since posting an 8-5 mark in 2001. And while North Carolina remains in contention for the Coastal Division title and a spot in Tampa for the ACC Championship Game, Davis indicated that any talk concerning that topic is “all premature.”