ATLANTA – It appeared early as though Gene Chizik’s defense would suffer a similar fate as his predecessors against Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense. Instead, North Carolina’s defense stiffened and held Georgia Tech to 10 points over its final seven possessions in Saturday’s 38-31 victory.
A history of disappointment in Atlanta, dating back to 1997, was on track to add another chapter as the Yellow Jackets built a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter. After a UNC touchdown with 1:29 remaining before halftime, Chizik’s defense forced its first 3-and-out.
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams took advantage of the short field opportunity, marching his offense 44 yards in six plays for another touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-14 at halftime.
Despite Georgia Tech rushing for 209 yards on 36 carries, good for 5.8 yards-per-carry average, on it first three touchdown drives, Chizik’s halftime message was simple and direct.
“We’re not really changing anything. You guys get off blocks and do the job you’re supposed to do.”
That’s been Chizik’s approach since he arrived in Chapel Hill. Execution over scheme. Effort over complexity.
“The only way you’re going to defeat blocks like that is to be more physical and have a mentality that you’re not going to be blocked,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the game. “Get off the blocks, run to the football, and make plays, and that’s what they did.”
There were a few minor adjustments made along the defense line, according to senior outside linebacker Shakeel Rashad. Those moves allowed middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer to scrap over the top of the line and extend into the perimeter while Rashad focused primarily on sealing the B gap.
The game plan, however, never changed.
“We ran the same exact calls,” Schoettmer said. “It was just about us being more physical and executing what we were supposed to do.”
There was also an element of familiarity in play. While the Yellow Jackets were gashing the Tar Heels in their first three drives, the defenders were growing more acclimated with the speed of Johnson’s scheme. UNC’s scout team, try as it might, had little to no hope in practice last week at replicating an offense that has been churning out rushing yards in Atlanta since 2007.
“Like everyone said all week, this offense, you’ve got to see it to really understand and know what’s going on,” Rashad said. “So the more we saw it, I felt like the better we were playing it.”
In the second half, Georgia Tech ran the ball 21 times for 41 yards, good for a 1.95 yards-per-carry average. UNC’s defense gave up a touchdown on a short field to open the third quarter before sandwiching a fumble recovery between a pair of fourth down stops.
For the second time in three games, the Tar Heels stymied an opponent at the goal line on 4th-and-1. Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas was stopped on consecutive plays at the 1-yard-line early in the fourth quarter with a chance to push his team’s lead to 35-24.
UNC’s defense held, and after forcing a turnover on Georgia Tech’s next possession, the Tar Heels took their first lead at 31-28.
Johnson’s offense has sputtered at time in recent weeks – Georgia Tech averaged 194.5 yards per game on 3.64 yards per carry in recent losses to Notre Dame and Duke – due in part to mounting injuries at running back. That doesn’t overshadow the fact that UNC entered Saturday’s contest ranked 113th nationally in rushing defense (228.8 yards per game).
The Yellow Jackets’ 255 rushing yards are the fewest against North Carolina since Johnson implemented his system in Atlanta in 2008.