After playing LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta two weeks ago without 13 key players that were held out due their involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation, some individuals within the North Carolina program had high hopes that more players would be cleared to play this weekend after last week's open date provided more of the precious commodity known as time. But starting running back Shaun Draughn has been the only Tar Heel officially cleared less than 24 hours before kickoff.
With six starters missing on defense against the Tigers, quarterback T.J. Yates (28-of-46 passing, 412 yards, 3 TD) rallied his squad from a 20-point second-half deficit only to fall short from the six-yard line as time expired, ultimately losing 30-24. But the Marietta, Ga. senior will have to overcome an old nemesis on a new sideline on Saturday in order the replicate those opening-game statistics.
Al Groh may have lost his job as Virginia's head coach at the end of last season, but it was not because of his 3-4 defense's efforts against North Carolina. The Cavaliers defeated UNC, 16-3, in Chapel Hill last October, holding Yates and Co. to 174 total yards of offense and forcing three turnovers.
"It was pretty much a nightmare all over the place," Yates said. "We couldn't pass the ball, couldn't run the ball, couldn't protect, turnovers, you know. It was pretty much the perfect storm of horribleness, I guess. It was bad all over. It wasn't a fun one to remember."
Groh has installed his 3-4 scheme in Atlanta after joining Paul Johnson's staff as defensive coordinator following his firing from Virginia.
"Anytime you see a 3-4 defense, it's something unique," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "It's something we don't run in practice. Al Groh has a great defensive background and pedigree from his days even prior to being at the University of Virginia. We've already seen evidence in the first two ball games of a lot of things they did at Virginia they've incorporated at Georgia Tech."
On the other side of the field, the defending ACC Champions return a bulk of their starters from an offense that led the ACC in total offense (422.1 ypg) and scoring offense (33.8 ppg), but the Yellow Jackets have missed the talents of 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Dwyer at running back and DeMaryius Thomas at wide receiver.
Josh Nesbitt, the 2009 All-ACC first-team quarterback, has only completed six of his 21 passing attempts for 124 yards on the season, but Johnson's multi-faceted rushing attack is still churning out the yards, averaging 331.5 yards per contest this season.
North Carolina has struggled to contain Georgia Tech's ground game since Johnson's arrival two years ago, but the concern is considerably more this time around as the Tar Heels will be forced to play a handful of underclassmen across the defense unless a last-second ruling comes down prior to kickoff.
"The buzz word, certainly defensively, is discipline," Davis said. "Guys have gotten assignments and responsibilities, and certainly with young players that's one of the challenges – making sure that they understand how critically important it is that they take care of their responsibility."
If the Tar Heels have one benefit, it's that last week's open date has given this defense extra time to prepare for Georgia Tech's unique offense. The Yellow Jackets are 2-4 under Johnson when opponents have nine days or more to prepare, but the third-year Tech head coach is not ready to claim a bye week as his kryptonite.
"I think there is advantage in having two weeks to prepare for anyone, no matter what kind of offense you have," Johnson said. "Conventional wisdom would say if you have two weeks to get ready for whoever you are playing it would be better than one week. But I don't think it is the end-all, be-all."
North Carolina is 3-0 in home openers under Davis, but the Tar Heels have not defeated a FBS opponent in their home opener since a 41-9 victory over Florida State in 2001.