It didn't take long for the ACC's hyped Coastal Division to take some serious hits in 2010, as North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have all suffered losses in the first two weeks of the season. Virginia Tech's choke job against James Madison at home provided the biggest shock of September, but Georgia Tech's 28-25 loss to Kansas ranks second on the list. The Jayhawks, picked fourth in the weak Big 12's North Division in the preseason poll, were coming off an embarrassing 6-3 loss to North Dakota State and looked to be another warm-up game for the Yellow Jackets. But Paul Johnson's squad was plagued with bad tackling, dropped passes, penalties and various other issues.
The Yellow Jackets returned 14 starters from the 2009 ACC Championship team that led the ACC in total offense (422.1 ypg) and scoring offense (33.8 ppg), but was likely picked third in this summer's preseason media poll due to the loss of several high-profile players – running back Jonathan Dwyer, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, ACC Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Morgan and safety Morgan Burnett. Georgia Tech is also adapting to new coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme on the defensive side of the ball. But while the Yellow Jackets may simply be working through early-season technicalities, the hatches need to be secured as four straight ACC opponents appear on the schedule.
"Two years ago when we were up there we got beat. They pummeled us, 28-7. Last year we got some semblance of revenge and I am sure they are going to be waiting this year to get their revenge - that is the way it works. I told the guys on Monday, if you don't think every game is going to be a street fight you better rethink it because nothing is easy. Nobody is going to give you everything so you better be ready to lay down and brawl, because they will be." – Johnson on UNC's potential revenge thoughts after last season's loss
"I thought he played great, that's the best I've ever seen him play. He threw the ball well, managed the game well. I thought he played an outstanding game. Very impressive." – Johnson on UNC quarterback T.J. Yates's performance against LSU
Yellow Jacket Spotlight
Senior Josh Nesbitt took a different avenue to acquiring first-team All-ACC quarterback accolades in '09, rushing for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns. His passing display – 75-of-162 passing, 1,701 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT – served primarily as a way to keep opposing defenses honest, as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (46 catches, 1,154 yards, 8 TD) was critical in not allowing secondaries to cheat up.
But Thomas is playing for pay this fall, and there has been no one to step up and provide Nesbitt with a legitimate receiving threat down the field. As a result, the Greensboro, Ga. native has completed just six of his 21 passes this season for 124 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Nesbitt was only 5-of-15 against Kansas, but his head coach dismissed the early-season statistics and blamed some of the problems on drops.
"It's just magnified when you don't throw it a lot," Johnson said on Monday. "Everybody that plays drops balls. When you're throwing it 45 times (per game), it's not a big deal. When you're throwing it 15 times and you drop a third of them, it becomes a problem."
As good as Nesbitt has been on the ground, totaling 163 yards and five touchdowns in two games, the senior quarterback will have to improve on his accuracy in helping his wide receivers to give Georgia Tech a two-pronged offensive attack. Dropped passes may have factored into his alarming completion percentage, but Nesbitt has never been known as a quarterback that puts the ball where it needs to be consistently. That will likely be a requirement if the Yellow Jackets have any hopes of repeating as ACC Champions this fall.
Matchups to Watch
Georgia Tech's 3-4 vs. North Carolina's New-Look Offensive Line
Johnson didn't do Butch Davis and North Carolina any favors when he hired former Virginia head coach Al Groh as his defensive coordinator. Groh's 3-4 defense – featuring three down linemen and four linebackers – suffocated UNC into three consecutive losses from 2007-09 as the Tar Heels averaged just 12 points and 88.3 rushing yards (2.82 ypc, TD). Yates and former UNC quarterback Cameron Sexton didn't fare much better through the air over the past two seasons against Groh's defense, averaging 150.5 passing yards and tossing four interceptions without a touchdown.
A large reason for North Carolina's inability to move the ball against Virginia falls at the offensive line's feet, as the 3-4 provides confusing elements that include linemen standing up and linebackers located in odd spots.
"It's just a scheme that's different from pretty much all of the other looks that we'll see and have seen," center-turned-guard Jonathan Cooper said on Tuesday. "It's one where you've got to be patient because the line is so far up off the ball and you've got to be sound with the schemes that you've learned."
While North Carolina's offensive line pass protected well against LSU on Sept. 4, the decimated rushing attack only managed 24 yards on 33 carries. Starting running back Shaun Draughn has been cleared to play on Saturday, but the UNC offensive line must still adapt to bye week changes that include moving Cooper to left guard and Alan Pelc to right guard, while backup Cam Holland assumes the starting center position.
But Georgia Tech's transition to the 3-4 hasn't been without bumps and bruises. The run defense is allowing 159.5 yards per game, while the first two opponents were a perfect 5-for-5 in red zone opportunities. The Yellow Jackets returned eight starters from last season's squad that ranked seventh in the ACC in total defense (360.3 ypg), but most observers expected some fall off with the departure of 2009 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Morgan and safety Morgan Burnett.
"Schemes are only the X's and O's on paper," middle linebacker Kyle Jackson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after Saturday's loss to Kansas. "It's like my high school coach used to say, ‘It's not about the X's and O's, its about the Johnnys and Joes.' At some point in time we're going to have to step up… We can't just rely on the scheme to make plays for us, we have to go out there and make plays ourselves."
North Carolina's Run Defense vs. Georgia Tech's Ground Game
North Carolina has fielded a solid run defense in recent years, but Johnson's multi-faceted ground game has churned out 643 rushing yards against the Tar Heels in the past two years alone. Both units enter Saturday's game trying to overcome a host of losses in the trenches.
Georgia Tech only returned two starters and 37 career starts along the offensive line coming into the '10 season, while North Carolina is currently missing All-America caliber talents in end Robert Quinn and tackle Marvin Austin as they are embroiled in the ongoing NCAA investigation, along with backup end Michael McAdoo. The Tar Heels must now rely on underclassmen at defensive end – sophomore Donte Paige-Moss and freshman Kareem Martin – to be disciplined on the edge.
And while the Yellow Jackets have undoubtedly missed 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Dwyer in the A-back role, Johnson's offense has still rolled up 331.5 rushing yards per game in '09, good for second nationally, albeit against inferior competition. Nesbitt (81.5 ypg), Anthony Allen (58.5 ypg) and Roddy Jones (41.5 ypg) are all capable of taking advantage of UNC's depleted front line, so the savvy linebacking corps of Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter and Kevin Reddick must help out from the second line of defense.
"The difference between Georgia Tech and other teams is that maybe you can get away with a false step or wrong alignment on one play [against the other teams]," Paige-Moss said. "One false step or wrong alignment against Georgia Tech is the difference between a loss of a yard and a gain of five yards."