CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 18 North Carolina hopes to remain in the ACC Coastal Division race on Saturday with a victory over Georgia Tech, which has been a proverbial thorn in the side more times than not for UNC during the divisional era.
Since the ACC Championship Game was first played in 2005, the Tar Heels are 3-8 against the Yellow Jackets, although Larry Fedora’s program has won the past two meetings, including a 38-31 victory in Atlanta last season after rallying from a 21-0 deficit. That win catapulted UNC to its first Coastal Division crown and ACC Championship Game appearance.
The Tar Heels (6-2, 4-1 ACC), who are favored by 10.5 points this weekend, need a third consecutive victory over Paul Johnson’s team (5-3, 2-3 ACC) if they hope to keep the pressure on Coastal leader Virginia Tech. With three ACC games left to play for both teams, UNC likely needs to win out while receiving some help from divisional foes in handing the Hokies a second league loss.
Last year’s dramatic victory highlights the challenge the Tar Heels will encounter at Kenan Stadium. UNC delivered its best season since the Mack Brown era with an 11-3 mark in 2015, while the Yellow Jackets stumbled to its worst season since 1994 with a 3-9 record. Even so, Georgia Tech led 28-24 entering the fourth quarter.
Eight of the 11 games played in the divisional era between these teams have been decided by eight or fewer points.
As usual, Georgia Tech’s triple-option rushing attack has absorbed the headlines this week. The old-school approach is churning out 247.6 rushing yards per game (18th nationally), led by quarterback Justin Thomas (479 rushing yards, 5 TD) and B-back Dedrick Mills (446 yards, 9 TD). Thomas is also completing a career-high 55.2 percent of his passes for 1,024 yards, six touchdowns and an interception.
That passing ability has proven problematic for defenses this season that would prefer to bring an extra safety up into the box.
“If you can protect the quarterback, there are going to be guys open,” Johnson said this week. “If you cannot run the ball, the safety would not be at the line of scrimmage. It is a system and when you are operating correctly and blocking, you have some answers for what people do…
“When we run the ball successfully, 280 yards a game and above, then we are pretty good. When you rush for that amount of yardage, they have to start taking chances defensively, which opens up the passing game.”
UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s bend-but-don’t-break defense is predicated on forcing opposing offenses to be efficient and move the ball down the field in small chunks. Georgia Tech is averaging more than five scrimmage plays of 20 yards or more per game, including nearly two plays of 40 yards or more (2nd ACC).
“Explosive plays, that's the thing that breaks your back,” Fedora said. “You defend the option, you get them into 3rd-and-long situations, you know they are going to throw. You bring an extra guy, which forces [Thomas] out of the pocket and then it's like death, because he can break your back.”
The Tar Heels have quietly become an effective defense as the season has moved along, holding their last three opponents to fewer than 365 yards. UNC allowed its opponents to average 3.7 yards per play in October.
“There were small incremental changes and improvement each and every week,” Fedora said. “Not things that probably the naked eye from a novice is going to see, but as a coaching staff, we were able to see improvement in each and every week that we've been out there, and I think now we're getting to the point in the season where our guys are really comfortable.”
Georgia Tech’s methodical style helps its defense stay off the field, which is a worthy cause when quarterback Mitch Trubisky (71.2 completion percentage, 2,378 yards, 18 TD, 2 INT) is standing on the other sideline.
"We went through and looked at the last four years [against Georgia Tech], and I think we average right around 10 possessions,” UNC offensive coordinator/OL coach Chris Kapilovic said. "Most of the time, we're somewhere between 13 and 14, sometimes 15 or 16. So we know that. You have to be efficient with the ball."
Trubisky has been just that, ranking 10th nationally in passing efficiency (160.8). UNC ranks 22nd nationally in yards per play (6.46), one spot ahead of Georgia Tech (6.44).
While the Tar Heels’ defense has improved through its eight games, the same cannot be said for the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech is allowing 6.57 yards per play to ACC opponents, including a 7.7-yards-per-play average in last week’s win over Duke.
The great equalizer may be turnovers, given the likelihood of limited possessions. Neither team has been successful in that category, as Georgia Tech is tied for eighth in the ACC in turnover margin (-0.13) and UNC ranks 13th (-0.38). Any lost possessions could serve as a determining factor for Saturday’s victor.
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