USA Today Sports

UNC-GT Preview: Jackets Eyeing Bounce Back

UNC opens ACC play at Georgia Tech on Saturday (3:30pm/ESPNU).

Series Record:  Georgia Tech leads 28-19-3

Last Five Games:  Georgia Tech leads 4-1

Getting to Know Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets (2-2) enter Saturday’s game on a two-game losing streak after dropping their last two contests to No. 6 Notre Dame and Duke.  Georgia Tech was the preseason favorite to win the Coastal Division for a second straight year, but injuries and attrition at running back and defensive setbacks have caused the team to falter out of the gate. The season is still young, though, and a win over North Carolina would give Paul Johnson’s team a much-needed shot of adrenaline in early conference play.  The Yellow Jackets are also playing to keep a remarkable 18-year winning streak at home alive against the Tar Heels.

Offense

Georgia Tech lost four of its top five rushers this offseason, but retained quarterback Justin Thomas, who led the Yellow Jackets last season with 1,086 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.

Thomas is joined in the backfield by transfer senior Patrick Skov, who leads this year’s team with 263 yards and five touchdowns.  What’s more impressive about Skov’s play is that he has played consistently well in each of his four starts, and is coming off a career-high 75-yard game against Duke.

Beyond these two, the Yellow Jackets are still looking for options within its offense. Fifth-year senior Broderick Snoddy missed spring camp with a leg injury, but has started all four games as the A-back.  Snoddy’s play has been up and down this season, especially in Georgia Tech’s two losses; he rushed for a team-high 77 yards against Notre Dame, but then gained just 12 yards in two carries against Duke.

True freshman and Raleigh, N.C. native Marcus Marshall is Georgia Tech’s secondary option at B-back, but after a dazzling debut against Alcorn State (184 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries), he has seen fewer touches due to stiffer competition and Johnson’s preference in starting Skov.

The Yellow Jackets rank sixth nationally in rushing offense (326.0 ypg) and 13th in scoring offense (44.0 ppg).

While Georgia Tech has rushed for more yards through four games this season than last year (1,271 over 1,168), the ground attack has struggled against Power Five opponents, averaging just under 195 yards per game against Notre Dame and Duke.  Saturday’s game against North Carolina’s struggling run defense will be very telling for how the Georgia Tech backfield progresses this season.

Defense

While Georgia Tech’s offense played remarkably well in 2014, its defense did the bare minimum to win games.  Opposing teams gashed the Yellow Jackets for 6.3 yards per play last season, and while that number has improved to 4.9 yards per play, the defense struggled against a talented Notre Dame team and a less-than-stellar Duke offense.

The Yellow Jackets rank 31st nationally in total defense (314.0 ypg) and T-43rd in scoring defense (20.0 ppg).

Given that North Carolina offense’s contains many of the same working parts as last season, it’s interesting to note that the Tar Heels gained 579 yards against Georgia Tech last October, including 390 yards through the air. It was Georgia Tech’s second worst defensive outing of 2014 (the Yellow Jackets allowed 605 yards against Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl).

The Yellow Jackets have relied on a bend-but-don’t-break approach all season, and so far, it’s paid off. Georgia Tech ranks seventh nationally in takeaways, combining five fumble recoveries with five interceptions for 10 turnovers on the year. North Carolina has turned the ball over five times this season and has committed at least one turnover in three of its four games.

It is also worth noting that defensive linemen Patrick Gamble and Roderick Rook-Chungong are both questionable for this weekend’s game.

Notable Quotes

“It’s not something we talk about as a team. It won’t be something that I address with them, because the 2015 team hasn’t ever lost in Atlanta, and they’ve never lost in Chapel Hill.” – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora on the fact that North Carolina hasn’t won at Georgia Tech since 1997.

"Glad to have a chance to come back home and play.  Even though it has only been two weeks, it seems like an eternity since we have played a game here.  We are anxious to get back to work and see if we can get better.  We are disappointed with the result last week on the road, but we have got to move on.  We have got to get ready for a very talented North Carolina team that beat us a year ago up there in a high-scoring shootout.  I think that we are better defensively and we are going to have a chance to find out.  We have to see if we can get our bearings offensively and can play better than we have the last two weeks." – Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson

Match-Up To Watch

Georgia Tech’s Triple-Option vs. UNC’s Rushing Defense

It’s no secret that the Tar Heels have struggled against Georgia Tech’s signature triple-option offense for a long time. It’s also no secret that while the North Carolina secondary is undoubtedly improved, the rushing defense has failed to impress, allowing 5.3 yards per carry this season, good for 113th in the nation.

The ominous news for North Carolina doesn’t stop there. In the Larry Fedora era, the Yellow Jackets are averaging 542 yards per game and 46 points per game against the Tar Heels. The only team to average more against North Carolina in that timespan is East Carolina (696 yards and 62.5 points per game).

The good news for the Tar Heels is that defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has preached assignment football since his hire, and that’s the key to stopping an offense like Georgia Tech’s. It sounds simple enough, but throughout camp players talked about re-learning the fundamentals of knowing assignments and executing tackles. The differences from last year’s defensive confusion to Chizik’s simplistic approach through four games have been dramatic.

If the Tar Heels can slow down the Georgia Tech offense, it has to be considered a major win for the team, and it gives validity to the performance of the team in nonconference play. On the other hand, UNC struggled with Delaware’s gap scheme ground game on Saturday with missed tackles and missed assignments. A repeat performance in Atlanta could lead to yet another shootout with the Yellow Jackets.


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