Series Record: Georgia Tech leads 28-19-3
Last Five Games: Georgia Tech leads 3-2
Getting to Know Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets (5-3, 2-3 ACC) enter Saturday’s matchup on a two-game winning streak after losing three consecutive ACC matchups in the weeks prior. Georgia Tech hope to stay in the top half of the Coastal Division with a win against the Tar Heels. Paul Johnson’s squad has three games left in its ACC schedule – all against Coastal Division foes. The Yellow Jackets will arrive at Kenan Stadium as significant underdogs, having already lost two games against ranked opponents this season.
There’s no surprises when it comes to the offense Johnson put in place during his time at Navy, although the uniqueness of the offense makes it a challenge. Teams know it’s coming, but never know if they’ll be able to stop it. Under Larry Fedora, UNC has had trouble containing the flexbone formation – the Tar Heels have allowed an average of 42.5 points per game against the Yellow Jackets in their four meetings under Fedora.
The Yellow Jacket offense is directed by quarterback Justin Thomas, who is also the team’s leading rusher. The senior quarterback is coming off one of the best games of his career against Duke last week – throwing for 264 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 195 yards and two scores.
Over the years Thomas has proven to be an uncanny, but effective, runner from the quarterback position. When he decides to take the ball in his own hands, you’ll notice Thomas doesn’t get low, but rather keeps himself as upright as possible, helping him accelerate quicker downfield in open space. Also, he effectively weaves through the initial line created by the defense rather than using sharp cuts to get past defenders. With UNC’s veteran secondary, expect Thomas, who only averages 13 passing attempts per game, to be more cautious in airing the ball out.
When Thomas hands the ball off, he typically has three options. His favorite happens to be Dedrick Mills, who has rushed for 446 yards on 95 carries this season. Mills would likely be Tech’s leading rusher if having not had to miss two games this season due to a combination of suspension and injury. The 217-pound back missed last week’s Duke game due to a concussion, but is on schedule to play Saturday.
Mills is paired up with 212-pound running back Marcus Mitchell in the backfield to create a battering ram duo for the Yellow Jackets. To add explosiveness to his offense, Johnson also uses speed-back Clinton Lynch as his home-run hitter. Lynch averages 11.2 yards per carry this season and adds another dimension of speed to Thomas’s game.
In its last five games, Georgia Tech’s defense has started to show its holes. The unit ranks 40th in the nation in total defense, allowing 376.6 yard per game, but in recent weeks ACC offenses have had no problem finding ways to beat them. While Tech’s run defense falls in the middle of the pack nationally, it’s been the pass defense that has struggled as of late.
Poor coverage and missed assignments downfield have cost the Yellow Jackets a substantial amount of yards and points over the past two months and can be seen as the difference in their five ACC games.
The GT defense is led by safeties Corey Griffin and A.J. Gray, and cornerback Lance Austin. While all three have had their ups and downs in recent weeks, there is no denying the natural skill that they bring to the Yellow Jacket’s secondary. Griffin and Gray are the more physical of the bunch, resulting in both being involved in several of GT’s blitz packages. Griffin has three tackles for loss and one sack on the year when coming off of the edge. The 215-pound Gray also has the ability to find himself making a disruption in the backfield on any given play.
Austin is more of a finesse corner. He’s strategic with his hand placement, which helps him come close to getting a hand on almost any ball thrown within his range. He’s recorded five pass deflections this season, while also adding an interception.
Defensive lineman Patrick Gamble is the most effective player on Georgia Tech’s front seven. At 6-foot-5, 277-pounds, it’s easy to see why Gamble can wreak havoc on almost any play. He has recorded three sacks this year and will be licking his chops going against UNC’s inexperienced guards this week.
“Yeah, he completes a high percentage. He’s very accurate and knows what he wants to do on offense. The nature of their offense is they have a lot of check downs and a lot of guys so their quarterbacks are going to complete a high percentage, but he’s very talented. He’s been in the program a long time and knows what they’re trying to do and what he wants to do.” – Paul Johnson on UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky
“Some of the places are hard to play in the league on the road. You go to places where it’s hard to play, like this week we’ve got to go to Carolina and play…. You worry about the noise factors and that, but the field’s still 100 yards long and you’ve just got to go play.” – Johnson on playing on the road
Matchup to Watch
Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas vs. UNC’s linebackers
Paul Johnson’s triple-option is kryptonite for undisciplined defenses. Ask any coach who has faced Johnson’s offense and they’ll tell you that focus and attention to detail is a must. UNC’s defensive approach asks its linemen to plug holes, but if Thomas slips past, it will be up to UNC’s linebacking corps of Andre Smith, Cole Holcomb, and Cayson Collins to be able to contain the quarterback. The problem is that Thomas can thrive running everywhere on the field. If he can’t find space to the outside, he doesn’t mind weaving back to the middle of the field and cutting between two linebackers. It will be up to not overcommit and play their cues when Thomas keeps.