ACC Championship is likely out of reach

North Carolina was on the cusp of doing something no other Tar Heel team had done since 1980—winning at least a share of an ACC Football Championship.

The circumstances looked promising. Having run off a string of five consecutive victories, with impressive wins against Florida State and Clemson as bookends, the Tar Heels were on a roll.

Allen made nine catches for 114 yards.
They were ranked 22nd in the Associated Press poll, their first ranking since the first week of 1998. All they had to do was win on the road against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, then coast to a piece of the title with home conference games left against Wake Forest and Duke.

Even a trip to the Orange Bowl was possible.

The Tar Heels were coming off a performance on the road against Clemson in which they excelled in every phase of the game. It was perhaps the most complete win over a ranked opponent on the road ever by a UNC squad.

Against the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels fell flat in many areas where they had dominated in their previous contest against Clemson.

  • Against Clemson, the Tar Heels rolled up 219 yards on the ground, with tailback Andre Williams rushing for 91 yards. Against Georgia Tech, they had 13 rushing yards, with Williams rushing for minus five yards.

  • Against Clemson, the Tar Heels held the Tigers to only 65 rushing yards. Tech rushed for 237.

  • Against Clemson, the Tar Heels dominated time of possession by over 7 minutes. Tech held the ball 13 minutes longer than did the Heels.

  • Against Clemson, the Tar Heels limited the Tigers to only 52 return yards. Tech returned punts and kickoffs for 219 yards.

How did that happen?

First, give credit to Georgia Tech. They were ready for this game, and stepped up in a big way Thursday night.

Aiken makes another tremendous catch.
"Give them a lot of credit, they were emotional, they played with a great deal of fire, they executed well," said Carolina head coach John Bunting following the loss.

But there are other explanations that are more illuminating.

North Carolina's offense has suffered from an inability to establish a ground attack over the course of the season. Though they have been successful in accumulating rushing yardage against opposition that is weak in run defense, they have not been able to run effectively against stouter competition.

Virginia and Clemson are ranked 7th and 8th in the conference in rush defense, yielding averages of 213 and 157 yards rushing per contest respectively.

Georgia Tech and Maryland are ranked 1st and 2nd in the conference. The Tar Heels had 13 yards rushing against Tech, and take away Willie Parker's 77-yard run on the first play from scrimmage against Maryland, North Carolina rushed for only 41 yards the rest of the game.

Andre Williams is rushing for only 3.1 yards per attempt, the lowest average of any tailback in the ACC. The offensive line, though it has improved remarkably in terms of pass protection, still has been unable to get defenses blocked well enough to create space for North Carolina's runners.

After the Tech loss, Coach Bunting lamented, "We didn't create any holes whatsoever for our runners, both the quarterback, and Andre [Williams] and Jacque [Lewis]. They did a real good job blocking us up front."

The ability of opposing teams to stack the line against the Tar Heel offense and stymie any semblance of a running game has been the unsolvable puzzle for Bunting and his staff all season.

Tar Heel center Adam Metts said following the Tech loss, "When they put a lot of people up in the box, and put a point of emphasis on stopping the run, you got to break them from that, you got to break some plays, you got to get out – move the down linemen off the line."

That is exactly what the Tar Heels have been unable to do.

In their early season losses, special team lapses plagued the Tar Heels. The North Carolina punt and kickoff teams were particularly susceptible to giving up long returns. Against Oklahoma, the Heels surrendered 102 yards to the Sooners. Against Texas, they gave up 221 return yards.

Against Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels surrendered 219 yards on returns. By so doing, they also surrendered field position.

The UNC defense looked as if it had put all the pieces together against Clemson, totally dominating the Tigers who had been on an offensive roll in the two weeks prior to the Carolina game.

The Tar Heels held the vaunted Tiger attack, led by quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, to only 209 yards of total offense.

George Godsey, the Yellow Jacket quarterback, directed an offense that torched UNC for 424 yards, including a startling 198 rushing yards by tailback Joe Burns.

Malcolm Stewart celebrates a goal-line stand.
The Tar Heels were left with few explanations for Tech's success. "Up front we did get whipped pretty nicely," said defensive tackle Ryan Sims.

The most puzzling part of Tech's success was their ability to convert third-and-long. "I don't know what their third-down percentage was, but it had to have been pretty good, because on third-downs we just couldn't execute and get off the field, like we have been doing in the past," said linebacker David Thornton.

Coach Bunting also had a problem with Tech's success on third down.

"The big disappointment for me is when we had third-down situations on defense we did not get off the field," remarked Bunting. "You've got to do that against a good team."

There were some bright spots for the Tar Heels in this defeat. Bosley Allen had his best game of the season, catching 9 balls for 114 yards. Sam Aiken continued his highlight reel of circus catches with a touchdown catch that looked like it would be knocked away.

Darian Durant performed well in his first start, going wire-to-wire for the Tar Heels and completing 22 of 37 passes for 286 yards, including three touchdown passes against only one interception.

So, no more Orange Bowl talk, and a piece of the conference title is also now the longest of long shots. The Tar Heels have other things to talk about now: how to run the ball, how to limit returns, and how to stop a team on third down.

Those topics should generate plenty of conversation over the final three regular-season games.

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