In the two games since North Carolina's disappointing 27-21 opening loss at home to Miami (OH), coach John Bunting has noted significant areas of encouragement.
The Tar Heels won at Syracuse in a game they took over in the second half. In the loss to Texas, Carolina fought back numerous times, and appeared to have found a feature tailback in Jacque Lewis.
So, with an extra week to prepare for a bruised and batted Georgia Tech club, optimism was pretty high in Chapel Hill.
As of now, that hopefulness might be on hold.
Ajenavi Eziemefe ran for 136 yards and a touchdown and the Yellow Jackets dominated nearly every facet of the game and knocked off UNC, 21-13, before 57,000 fans at Kenan Stadium.
Although the margin was just one touchdown, Tech's dominance was so obvious that half of the UNC faithful in attendance had exited with less than five left, even though Carolina was still in the game.
"There's not a whole lot to say here," said Bunting. "You look back as a coach, at the end of the season, and you say, 'There's another one - a game you should have won, could have won, and did not win.' And there are very glaring reasons for it.
"If we keep playing like we're playing on defense - missing tackles - and making bone-head plays to keep drives alive, we won't be very good."
UNC's array of mistakes left no area of the team unscathed.
There were a pair of costly penalties, one giving Tech four points, and another contributing to a scoring drive. There was a fumble at the two-yard-line after a 60-yard reception and run. There was a dismal effort defensively on third down, as the Yellow Jackets converted on 11 of 17 attempts. There were poorly thrown balls, sacks and questionable play calling at crucial periods on offense. And of course, there were a horde of missed tackles - a common theme with this team - especially for Carolina's rattled secondary.
The Heels were fortunate to even be in the game up to the last play - a desperation pass by Darian Durant (14-25, 230 yards) that was batted down as the clock expired.
In all, it wasn't UNC's finest hour.
"We had so many opportunities to win the game," said defensive end Will Chapman. "That's what makes it so tough. When you can go out there and know you can stop them, and you've got them stopped on third down, with good field position for the offense. It's a stab in the heart when they make that long pass for one more yard or short run for another first down."
It wasn't that simple. UNC killed itself in every facet of the game, especially in the area of fundamentals.
"During the bye week, we worked awfully hard on the fundamentals and understanding the overall scheme of our defense," an exasperated Bunting said. "It didn't show up today. To me, tackling is a mentality. If what took place today is any reflection of our mentality, then we better get the mentality changed quickly. Believe me, it will be an interesting week around here on the practice field."
Georgia Tech (4-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) entered having lost the nation's leading rusher, Tony Hollings, for the season during last week's win over BYU. But with their highly regarded offensive line and the running of freshmen tailback Eziemefe, the Jackets had success on the ground right out of the gate.
After quarterback A.J. Suggs (15-27, 166 yards) kept for six yards on Tech's opening possession, Eziemefe went for 16 on a toss sweep - a sign of things to come. Carolina, however, quickly gained the upper hand when Michael Waddell picked off a Suggs pass and returned it to Tech's 22-yard-line.
The interception by Waddell was UNC's first by a cornerback in a regular season game since Carl Torbush was head coach.
UNC went three-and-out and settled for a 39-yard Dan Orner field goal, and led 3-0 with 11:02 left.
Tech, which has now beaten the Tar Heels five consecutive times, including three times in Chapel Hill, responded with another long drive, but a missed field goal by Burnett stalled that drive.
Tech coach Chan Gailey went to QB Damarius Bilbo on its next possession, and the energetic freshman took his team right down the field, and hooked up with Kerry Watkins for a 10-yard touchdown pass, and Tech led 7-3 with 2:23 left in the opening period.
On the drive, the Jackets converted on fourth-and-two when it appeared Bilbo was being brought to the turf by a trio of Tar Heels before he completed a 12-yard pass to keep the drive alive.
"The urgency to get that quarterback on the ground is not there," said Bunting, referring to Bilbo's escape. "There is something we have to get figured out, and soon. To me, that's a mentality."
UNC impressively responded with scoring drive of its own. Sam Aiken's 30-yard reception on third down gave the Heels a shot of energy. Lewis (51 yards on 13 carries) gobbled up seven and 12 yards on his next two carries, and Durant found tight end Zach Hilton over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown, and despite being mostly on defense in the first quarter, UNC was in the lead, 10-7 with 14:56 before intermission.
Will Glover's 27-yard TD reception from Suggs answered a UNC scoring drive that put Carolina up 13-7. That score gave Tech the lead for good with 4:42 left in the half. The Jackets also benefited on the drive from a personal foul call on UNC freshman defensive tackle Kendall High.
The key plays were obvious. After Hilton's 11-yard reception and Madison Hedgecock's 10-yard run up the gut on UNC's second and third plays of the third quarter, Durant found Bobby Blizzard toward the right side. The Kentucky transfer went 60 yards, shaking off a few Tech defenders before fumbling at the two-yard line. Tech's Jonathan Cox fell on the ball in the end zone for a touchback, and Georgia Tech took over on its own 20.
"All week we knew they ran a lot of cover-two when the safeties split," Blizzard said. "I saw a bunch of green. Darian knew where to throw it and he hit me.
"As for the fumble, it was a close call," Blizzard continued. "I don't know if I was down or not. It's tough right now. I feel like I blew the game, judging by the (final) score."
Instant replays showed it was clearly a fumble.
"It was big," Durant said about Blizzard's fumble. "It was the opening possession of the second half. We felt that if we had scored momentum would have been on our side big time. That play really hurt us."
Tech then proceeded to march 80 yards on 18 plays, chewing up 8:02 off the clock for the game's final points - a one-yard run by Eziemefe with 4:52 left in the third quarter.
UNC appeared to have stopped the Yellow Jackets at the five, and the Jackets connected on a 22-yard FG. But Derrick Johnson was called for running into the kicker, giving Tech a first down at the three. Chan Gailey opted to take the points off the board and two plays later Tech scored from one yard out to take a 21-13 lead with 4:42 left in the 3rd.
"I looked for a block and tried to make something happen," said Johnson. "That's the way the game goes sometimes. It can look like something is going good for you and bad for the other team, and then it ends up good for them."
Even with the penalties and Blizzard's fumble, Carolina could have won had it not been for its destructive defensive performance on third down.
"Third down was killing us today," said Kevin Knight, who was one of the team's few bright spots on the day. "We have to get off the field on third down. It is the most important down. We just didn't do that today."
And unless they learn to do it in the future, the Tar Heels will likely experience defeat quite a few more times this fall.
The Tar Heels are now 1-3 overall and 0-1 in the ACC. Next week they travel to Arizona State for a 10 p.m. EST kickoff.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.
Yellow Jackets Sting Heels, 21-13
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