North Carolina @ Ga. Tech, Thursday, 7:30, ESPN

With a win Thursday night in Atlanta, North Carolina will be in the driver's seat for a share of the 2001 ACC Championship, something that was unthinkable last September 22, when the 0-3 Tar Heels took the field against mighty FSU. But much early season adversity and some awefully good coaching has turned these lambs into monsters. And the Jackets face their third home conference loss if they don't play with more intensity.

I'll never forget the look on Bobby Bowden's face on September 22, broadcast for all the world to see on ABC. He wasn't naked but he looked like he had just been undressed in public as he stood on the sidelines and watched the Tar Heels massacre his 'Noles 41-9.

I had assured a friend of mine --a long-time FSU fan-- not to worry when he called me at halftime. "The light's going to come on for the 'Noles in the third quarter and they'll win this game," I assured him.

But it was in the second half of that game and during subsequent wins over East Carolina and Virginia at home and against N.C. State and Clemson on the road that it became clear to all of us that these guys are not your Carl Torbush Tar Heels anymore.

These young men are suddenly winners and they seem highly motivated to stay that way.

John Bunting, the former Heel linebacker in his first season at the helm, has proven to all observers that he can motivate with best of them.

And that's the problem for the Jackets. They have struggled this year against two super-motivated opponents. Clemson and Maryland both played more focused than the Jackets did in those hard fought, overtime games. In fact, the Jackets appeared at times during both those games to be playing not to lose. Perhaps it was that exact cause -- the result of such high pre-season expectations -- that is most responsible for those games slipping away into defeat.

And for reasons of motivation, these Heels represent Tech's toughest challenge yet. You see, after the Heels play the Jackets on Thursday, they have just three games left, at home against Duke, Wake, and SMU. If they beat Tech, they'll be in the drivers' seat for at least a share of the ACC Championship. That's pretty awesome for a team that began 0-3. There are enough lessons in perseverance, hustle and teamwork in these Heels to fill a two week coaches' clinic.

On paper, the Jackets look good against this opponent. They have more and better playmakers when you tally it all up. But if the Jackets show up again trying not to lose, a national television audience will get to see them undressed as well.

UNC's Offense vs. Tech's Defense

When Bunting took over the Heels he chose to run an offense more like Virginia Tech's than Florida's. The emphasis is on power. He likes his team to outfight, out-tough, and outlast opponents, which is very George O'Leary, very Old School. So, statistically, they don't rank very high. They are sixth in the ACC in rushing offense and seventh in total offense, outpacing only Duke and Wake Forest. Ronald Curry, who was being called the Quincy carter of UNC six weeks ago, is suddenly playing well, not great, but well. The other quarterback, freshman Darian Durant (nine Tds/seven INTs), has already been named ACC Rookie of the Week four times this season. He throws a flat, highly interceptable ball, but he's the playmaker who has turned around games for UNC already several times this season. Both, of course, play, so the Jackets have to prepare for both. These two athletes can run the quarterback draw, but, thankfully, Daryl Smith is back and should be at full speed. Sophomore Andre Williams has been the Heels top rusher, but he only averages 3.3 yards a carry. Willie Parker, the other tailback is more elusive and likely to bust open a big play. Sam Aiken, Chesley Borders and Kory Bailey are the top receivers. Overall, UNC has limitations on offense and should find tough going against the Jackets and Daryl Smith. Greg Gathers, with All-American rival Julius Peppers on the competing sideline, will be looking to put on a show, as will Nick Rogers.

UNC's Defense Vs. Tech' Offense

The Heels play a lot of zone blitz--so much so that Peppers has dropped into pass coverage often enough to intercept three passes and break up six more. And the dude has eight sacks (second only to Gathers's nine).Most of the tackles fall on LBs David Thornton and Quincy Monk and FS Dexter Reid. UNC sits at the top of the ACC with Tech in most defensive categories. Godsey will have to be sharp to avoid adding to UNC's conference leading 12 INTs. Tech needs to perform better in the red zone, of course, than they did against N.C. State. A little unpredictability would help. UNC is last in the ACC, by the way, in red zone defense. The Jackets will be playing into UNC's hands if they don't open up the playbook a little and try and spread the wealth to the tight ends. John Paul Foschi and Russ Matvay have been patiently waiting for a chance to make more significant contributions. But also keep your eyes on Kerry Watkins. He's been the Jacket most likely to make a big play so far this season.

Special Teams

"On paper," the Jackets have some advantages here also. Tech ranks first in the ACC in kickoff returns, while UNC ranks eighth. But that's a little deceiving because the Heels have covered better since their early losses. Manget, who'll likely never have another nightmare game like he did against the Wolfpack, is a big advantage though. UNC, like Tech, has an excellent punt return game.

Summary

Whoever hits the hardest will win this game. The Jackets need to take it to this team and prove their a force to be reckoned with again. If they come out tentative against this well-coached and motivated bunch, they'll lose. Period.


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