"There's a certain formula that you have to have to try to beat Georgia Tech," UNC head coach Butch Davis said afterwards. "You go into the ball game knowing there's going to be a limited number of possessions during the course of the game, just because of the scheme and the style that they play. The time of possession is the thing, you go into it knowing you're going to have a hard time matching them for time of possession."
The Tar Heels certainly got off to the right start in that category over the first five possessions. UNC had 32 plays for 225 yards in 15:30, while Georgia Tech had eight plays for 143 yards in 3:49. Helping UNC win the early time-of-possession battle was its conversion of five of six third down plays and T.J. Yates finishing the first half 11-of-13 for 158 yards and a touchdown.
"I think offensively we got off to an outstanding start, we moved the ball, we scored points, we capitalized on some big play opportunities," Davis said.
A 10:32 Yellow Jacket drive to end the second half evened the difference and the score (17-17).
"I thought the first drive of the game we did a good job marching down field, changing the tempo, running the ball, had a deep one," Yates said.
It only took 59 seconds for the Tar Heels to turn a Yellow Jacket miscue on the opening drive of the third quarter into a 24-17 lead. After the two teams exchanged punts, the first of the game for each team, UNC had an opportunity to seize control of the clock and the game.
The Tar Heels stopped Georgia Tech on a fourth-and-two with 4:33 remaining in the third.
"One of the biggest (factors) was having a 24-17 lead, you get a stop, you get the ball, now if you can go down and if you can make it more than a one-score ball-game, it kind of enhances your ability to make them play left-handed a little bit," Davis said.
Instead, North Carolina handed possession back to the Yellow Jackets when Devon Ramsay and Yates crossed paths and the ball ended up on the ground. "I ran into the fullback," Yates said. "That's a tough look for us because the fullback is the lead blocker, and he's got to get out – it was something stupid, we just ran into each other."
Despite the uneven time of possession in the third quarter, however, the Tar Heel defense performed far better than in the first half and was forcing more third down plays. Yet they were beginning to become "worn down," as senior linebacker Bruce Carter noted.
A key opportunity to force a punt late in the third quarter was lost on third-and-11 when Josh Nesbitt connected on a desperation floater to Roddy Jones. The Yellow Jackets converted the big play and shortly thereafter Nesbitt ran in the tying touchdown from one-yard out.
The extended time on the field undoubtedly slowed the UNC defenders.
"It obviously takes a toll, but when that happens, when our defense starts getting tired, you have to block that out and try not to think about it," safety Matt Merletti said.
But the tiring defense was only half the problem. The UNC offense failed to convert a third down in the second half, going 0-4 on conversion attempts.
"They backed off some of the things they had been doing earlier in the ball game," Davis said of the Tech defense. "They changed some of their coverages, they rolled coverages to receivers to try and minimize their effectiveness. They got some pressure, they got T.J. out of the pocket, and that was probably the difference in the second half as opposed to the first half."
Yates added: "They were adjusting a little bit to some of our runs, they were slanting and looping certain ways against our run packages, but other than that, they played tough defensive football in the second half."
The Tar Heels regained possession with 12:12 left in the fourth quarter, needing not just to score points, but to sustain a drive to give their leg-weary defenders a break on the sideline. Just a couple of plays later, Zack Pianalto was stripped of the ball after a pass reception.
Georgia Tech ultimately won the time of possession battle, 35:00 to 25:00, and in this game it seemed to disrupt the rhythm of the UNC offense as much as it wore down the defense, particularly one missing so many starters.
It is one thing to know going in that you're going to have to contend with Georgia Tech's ball control strategy, but not as easy to combat it on the field, especially when having to overcome crucial turnovers. Yet, despite the turnovers and the defensive hurdles, the Tar Heels were right there at the end with a chance to win it.
"Just a couple of plays are going to turn a football game like this, a one score game," Yates said. "We've got to protect the ball."