Still, UNC coach John Bunting likened this near upset to "the one that got away."
"That was one giant ‘M.O.': a missed opportunity," Bunting said. "We had a chance to do something really special. We made some plays. But we didn't make enough plays."
Despite playing turnover-free football through three quarters and converting several big gainers through the air on offense, the Tar Heels' defense couldn't keep Tech's triumvirate of quarterback Reggie Ball (374 yards total offense), tailback P.J. Daniels (113 yards rushing) and wide receiver Calvin Johnson (114 yards receiving), as well as wideout Damarius Bilbo (131 yards receiving) – from being decisive factors on Saturday.
"Bilbo really showed us what we thought he could be," Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "For the first three and a half quarters, [Ball] engineered drives and just played really well."
Meanwhile, the 17th-ranked Yellow Jackets (2-0 overall, 1-0 ACC) insured the Tar Heels will go at least "0-for-a-decade" at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
UNC (0-1, 0-1) has now lost seven of its last eight contests in the series, including four straight on the road. Except for the 2001 Peach Bowl victory, Carolina has not won in Atlanta since a Thursday night in 1997, when UNC – in Mack Brown's last season – defeated Tech 16-13.
Gailey, who like Bunting migrated from the NFL to the college game, is 3-1 versus his counterpart – as is his defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta – a one-year resident of the Carolina football program in 2001.
The Tar Heels appeared ready to get the early momentum on Tech's first possession, when Cedrick Holt stepped in front of and snagged a Ball pass in Yellow Jackets' territory on its first possession. But what would have been an interception in every college football season prior to this one, and would have given the Tar Heels the ball in Tech territory, was overturned by the instant replay officials. Nine plays later, Ball found Daniels on five-yard screen pass to give the Yellow Jackets a 7-0 lead.
Tech would score again in the second quarter on a 48-yard strike from Ball to Bilbo.
"If you look at those two touchdowns, there are a few things that we could have done," linebacker Doug Justice said. "After that, we said, ‘Just play. Stop worrying about what the score is and go out there and do what we know how to do as a defense and play hard.'"
Trailing 14-0, the Tar Heels battled back to tie it at the half on a 10-yard touchdown run by Matt Baker and an 87-yard scoring pass from Baker to Derrele Mitchell.
Then after falling behind again 27-14 entering the fourth quarter, Carolina missed on a couple of scoring chances; as Baker interceptions terminated three of the Tar Heels final four possessions. The most damaging came on a 4th-and-2 at the Tech 4, when Baker rolled right looking for Jesse Holley in the end zone and his pass intercepted by cornerback Jamal Lewis.
However, other than his late-game miscues, Baker was impressive both running and passing. The fifth-year senior in his first collegiate start completed 18 of 39 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
"I really wasn't (nervous)," Baker said. "There were a couple of butterflies running back into the locker room just a little bit, but nothing really. I felt like I had started a bunch of games before. I didn't feel awkward."
Baker's 17-yard scoring toss to Jarwarski Pollock with 4:16 left to play pulled the Tar Heels to within six on the scoreboard. The UNC defense then held the Yellow Jackets to a three-and-out to give Baker and the Carolina offense one more shot. But after a seven-yard sideline completion to Mike Mason gave the Tar Heels first down at the Tech 46 with a little over two minutes to play, Baker's next offering was picked off by Dennis Davis to all but end it.
Carolina's defense would do its job one more time, but the field was now too long and the clock was winding down, as the Tar Heels were backed up at their own 19 with 44 seconds remaining. The final three plays of the game ended in a sack of Baker, his third interception and a kneel-down by Ball.
"I made some good throws, but I made some bad throws," Baker said. "I feel like I got better today. That doesn't mean anything right now - it would have been nice to come out of here with a victory."
Despite being blitzed constantly, Baker was only sacked twice, but was hurried frequently and had four passes broken up.
"I thought North Carolina's offensive line did a great job of protecting their quarterback today," Gailey said.
The Tar Heels defense allowed 475 yards to the Yellow Jackets – nearly 30 yards more than their per-game-average last season. But the statistic that may be most telling is Tech managed to convert 10 of 20 third down attempts.
"We started focusing in the third quarter and getting off the field when we needed to," defensive tackle Chase Page said. "We have to have that earlier on in the ball game. We have to execute. You can't wait. We had great focus in the fourth quarter and we executed when we needed to execute, but we need to do that the first series of the game."
And while the UNC defense became almost immovable late in the fourth quarter, Carolina's rushing offense became all but stagnant as the game wore on.
The Tar Heels averaged 176 yards per game in 2004. But other than a few early bursts into the defensive backfield by tailbacks Cooter Arnold and Barrington Edwards, the UNC ground attack was good for just 61 yards.
"I felt pretty good about everything I was supposed to do," said Arnold, a true freshman playing in his first game. "On the plays I was in I knew exactly what to do."
Most coaches agree the most noticeable improvement in a team occurs in between the first and second games of the season. The Tar Heels open their home schedule against Wisconsin next Saturday at 7 p.m.