Countdown to Kickoff: Georgia Tech

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 25 North Carolina travels to Atlanta on Saturday in search of its first win at No. 24 Georgia Tech and its first 4-0 start since 1997. Kickoff is set for noon on ESPN at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The Tar Heels (3-0) will assume the underdog role for the first time this season as the Yellow Jackets (3-0) are favored by seven points. That spread is heavily based on Georgia Tech's plus-37.3 scoring differential through three games.

These Coastal Division rivals are meeting for the 47th time with the Yellow Jackets holding a 25-18-3 overall record against the Tar Heels. Georgia Tech has won six straight at home and 11 of the last 13 overall in the series.

The storyline for a matchup with the Yellow Jackets has remained the same ever since Paul Johnson took over for Chan Gailey prior to the 2008 season, and that's how to defend his multi-faceted ground games that blends elements of the old-school veer and triple-option schemes, among others.

But Johnson bristles at the notion that his offense is based in the old "three yards and a cloud of dust" mentality.

"I think the perception is it's grind it out, because sometimes we can do that and have long drives," Johnson said. "But the nature of what you do tends to have a lot of plays. If you are counting big plays of 20 yards or more, we have had more than anybody else in the league I think every year since we have been here."

The facts clearly fall in Johnson's favor this season.

Georgia Tech leads the nation in rushing offense (427.7 ypg), total offense (675.3 ypg) and scoring offense (59.3 ppg) and rushing touchdowns (18). In 38 total possessions this season, the Yellow Jackets have scored 25 touchdowns, kicked two field goals and punted just five times.

Against Kansas last Saturday, Georgia Tech totaled 748 yards of offense (5th-highest in ACC history) and 604 rushing yards (ACC record).

A-back Orwin Smith leads the Yellow Jackets with 270 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 12 carries, while B-back David Sims (30 carries, 205 yards, 3 TD) and quarterback/tailback Synjyn Days (38 carries, 214 yards, 4 TD) round out the primary running options. Starting quarterback Tevin Washington (637 passing yards, 7 TD; 72 rushing yards, 2 TD) has added a vertical passing threat to Johnson's offense and leads the ACC in passing efficiency (334.3).

North Carolina counters with a run defense that ranks 16th nationally (76.7 ypg), while also holding its opponents to 16.3 points per game (32nd). Senior linebacker Zach Brown leads the Tar Heels in tackles (24), tackles for loss (4.0) and sacks (2.5), but sophomore end Kareem Martin has been the defensive surprise of the season, totaling 14 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks opposite of 2010 first-team All-ACCer Quinton Coples.

Georgia Tech has scored on its opening offensive play in three straight games, while UNC has not allowed a first quarter point this season.

The difficulty for the Tar Heels this week in practice has been in shifting their approach from aggressive to pure discipline. Part of that philosophy change is due to Georgia Tech's use of legal but dangerous cut blocks.

"We've had a lot of work in what we call playing with our hands and not getting caught in the cut zone," said Everett Withers, who is looking to become the first UNC head coach in ACC history to start his tenure 4-0. "We're normally an attack 4-3 front, so we're really trying to get off the ball. This week you have to not do that. You have to not jump off the ball. You have to be smart, play more with your hands, be more powerful with your hips.

"But what you want to do is play laterally this week instead of over across the line of scrimmage."

With the Yellow Jackets boasting six one-play touchdown drives and nine touchdowns on plays of 50 yards or longer, the Tar Heels' emphasis is on sticking to their keys and not overextending in an attempt to make the big play.

"You just definitely don't want to get caught out of place with this offense," senior cornerback Charles Brown said. "I saw a lot of big plays in previous games – they had a 95-yard play last week. You've just got to stay focused on your job."

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina hopes to continue its own success on the ground (179.3 ypg, 42nd nationally). Gio Bernard leads UNC with 247 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries, while Ryan Houston (31 carries, 109 yards, 3 TD) and A.J. Blue (14 carries, 75 yards) represent solid alternative options in the backfield.

Withers has stressed all week long the importance of his offense lengthening drives and getting points on the board.

"The big key is going to be us stopping them from running the ball," Johnson said. "They're going to come in here, I'm sure, trying to run the clock and control the ball."

Touchdowns take on an even greater meaning for the Tar Heels this weekend as place kicker Casey Barth is sidelined with a strained groin. Red-shirt freshman Thomas Moore and his reported 57-yard-plus field goal range will step into the void.

UNC red-shirt freshman quarterback Bryn Renner (57-of-70 passing, 693 yards, 5 TD, 4 INT) will encounter his first road game as a starter, but he has leaned on senior standout wide receiver Dwight Jones (20 catches, 336 yards, 4 TD) in posting a 176.7 passing efficiency mark that ranks second in the ACC.

Renner will have to navigate through defensive coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme, which has held UNC to an average of 13 points over the last eight matchups. The Yellow Jackets rank 49th nationally in both total defense (335.0 ypg) and scoring defense (22.0).

North Carolina also started the 2009 season with a 3-0 record, but a trip to Georgia Tech (24-7) on Sept. 26 ended that winning streak.

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