The opening drives told the story in Atlanta on Saturday for the Tar Heels (3-1, 0-1 ACC) and the Yellow Jackets (3-1, 2-1 ACC). Paul Johnson’s option rushing attack churned out 88 yards in nine plays – with seven different backs earning a carry – and Roddy Jones capped the march with a 13-yard toss sweep left for a touchdown.
North Carolina responded with a three-and-out, and promptly followed that performance with three more three-and-outs. The UNC defense managed to contain the Josh Nesbitt and Jonathan Dwyer show for the next four possessions (67 total yards), but T.J. Yates (11-of-26 passing, 137 yards, TD, 2 INT) and Co. could only muster seven yards in their first five series.
The Yellow Jackets dominated the statistics – 406 offensive yards, 10-of-19 third-down conversions and over 42 minutes of possession time. North Carolina countered with just 154 yards and a 1-of-11 performance on third downs, while also losing the turnover battle 3-0.
In two road games this season, the Tar Heels have gained 52 rushing yards on 56 carries.
Nesbitt (32 carries for 97 yards) provided two more scores for Georgia Tech, while Dwyer (19 rushes for 158 yards) averaged 8.3 yards per carry. Scott Blair tacked on a field goal before halftime to give the Jackets a 10-0 lead at intermission.
After UNC fell behind 17-0 in the fourth quarter, Yates found Erik Highsmith (6 catches, 107 yards, TD) for a 40-yard scoring strike, but it was too little, too late.
North Carolina has now lost nine straight ACC openers, dating back to 2000.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Nightmare of a Homecoming
When asked to describe the feeling of coming home and playing like he did on Saturday, Yates responded that it was “embarrassing.”
The Marietta, Ga. native didn’t need to say anything else. His final stats look better than they probably should – through three quarters Yates had completed 5-of-14 passes for 48 yards with an interception. The red-shirt junior threw behind his intended targets on three of his four passing attempts.
“I was a little off today,” Yates said. “I guess I wasn’t in rhythm, really. Just coming out in the first quarter or so, just couldn’t get anything moving the ball, running or passing. Just everything seemed a little off today.”
UNC head coach Butch Davis agreed when asked during his postgame press conference if his signal caller just never found a rhythm.
“He never did,” Davis said. “Certainly early, balls were behind guys, they were short of guys and then obviously you start to press a little bit and you try to make a throw.”
All players have bad outings – it’s a part of the game. But Yates’ margin of error is incredibly slim when you consider UNC’s offensive line has been hit hard with injuries and attrition and that the receiving corps is long on youth and short on experience. The third-year starter must rebound quickly for another tough test next week against Virginia.
The time of possession numbers were staggering: Georgia Tech – 42:06, North Carolina – 17:54. The second half was even worse as UNC had the ball for just six minutes and 14 seconds.
Regardless of how talented or deep this Tar Heel defense is, it’s nearly impossible to expect them to hold up to kind of stress.
“You train for it, so I wouldn’t say that we were really tired,” defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. “We played a good chunk of time on the field, but we’ve still got to go out there and put the fire out.”
Some observers may place the blame on the defense for allowing such an inordinate discrepancy, but the lack of offensive production at crucial times was devastating.
Case in point – after keeping the Yellow Jackets off the board on their opening drive of the second half, UNC’s offense provided its defense with only two minutes and 25 seconds of rest in a 4-play, 20-yard series. The defense took the field again and held Georgia Tech to a three-and-out, but had to return to the field 12 seconds later after a Yates interception on first down.
“To be honest, they’ve got to help us some,” defensive end Robert Quinn said. “But if they can’t get it done, then we should have put it on our shoulders and went out there and try to keep them from scoring so many points.”
Stumbling Out of the Gates
For the third straight game, North Carolina delivered a three-and-out on its opening possession. Add in a five-play, 12-yard drive to kick off the season against The Citadel, and offensive coordinator John Shoop’s inability to direct his unit down the field early is becoming a troublesome trend.
What’s worse is the déjà vu factor – in the first six games of 2008, the Tar Heels gained just two first downs on their opening possessions. North Carolina totaled 57 yards in 23 plays – and no points – during its opening drives last fall, resulting in a 3.8-play, 9.5-yard average per contest.
Through four games in ’09, those averages have dropped to 3.5 plays and 6.0 yards.
“That was one of the things that we wanted to do today – to come out and score right away from the get-go and try to give our defense some cushion,” Yates said. “We definitely noticed that and that’s something that we’re trying to do.”