Head-to-Head: UNC-GT

What are the key battles to watch in Saturday's game against Georgia Tech? Inside Carolina takes a closer look at the five head-to-head matchups that will determine the outcome ...

1.) UNC's Youth vs. GT's Experience

The youth card has run its course in Chapel Hill this fall, as the North Carolina underclassmen have participated in 10 ball games against top competition. The Tar Heels (3-7, 2-4 ACC) have faced a multitude of circumstances that will undoubtedly pay dividends in the not-so-distant future, but there is one situation that presents itself this weekend in Atlanta that the UNC players have not dealt with before this season – the prospect of playing a game with no bowl game as a motivational tool. Greg Little, Marvin Austin and Quan Sturdivant lead a cast of young players that just witnessed the postseason elimination party that took place in Carter-Finley Stadium.

"It hurts that we are not going to be able to go to a bowl," red-shirt freshman Kendric Burney said. "This team is never about quitting, it is about trust. These last two games we are going to get focused and win out the next two games hopefully."

Will head coach Butch Davis and his coaching staff be able to keep the intensity at an appropriate level on a team that boasts just 24 upperclassmen? A 5-7 record would give the Tar Heels some momentum heading into the recruiting season, while a 3-9 mark could erase a significant amount of the good will built up throughout the UNC fan base.

Georgia Tech (6-4, 3-4 ACC) is facing similar mental issues with a different flavor. Not only is the veteran Rambling Wreck squad (18 upperclassmen starting) dealing with rumors surrounding head coach Chan Gailey's job status, they are also trying to avoid looking past North Carolina to next week's opponent – archrival Georgia.

With veteran leaders like safety Jamal Lewis and linebacker Philip Wheeler, most would expect them to maintain their focus, but even the Yellow Jacket administration has gotten into the action this week.

"North Carolina is a fine team and Coach (Butch) Davis is doing some good things there and they're moving in a good direction," athletics director Dan Radakovich told The Sporting News earlier this week, adding that UNC may be overlooked by the fan base "when you have such a big rivalry game on the horizon the following week. It's not a whole lot different than when we had Duke here for the last game last year."

2.) UNC's Run Defense vs. GT's Tashard Choice

North Carolina entered last weekend's rivalry clash with N.C. State with a top-30 nationally-ranked defense and solid run support, but Jamelle Eugene ran wild against the Tar Heels, tallying 159 yards and three touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano needs to pack those holes quickly, as Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice represents the best tailback that the ACC has to offer this season.

The senior is averaging 114.9 yards per game, despite battling a hamstring injury the past several weeks. He practiced a minimal amount on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, with the hope that he could return to full action on Thursday.

But Gailey believes Choice's performance will not be limited against the Tar Heels on Saturday.

"Had he been out two weeks, then it's another scenario," Gailey said. "You'd need to see him practice. But he played Saturday. Now you try to get him as well as possible to go play the next game, just make sure he knows the game plan and what he needs to do.

"Even if he doesn't get the full-speed stuff, he gets the walk-throughs and the half-speed stuff so that he understands the timing, the reads and what we're trying to get done."

North Carolina's defensive line and senior linebacker Durell Mapp (112 tackles) have done their job admirably this fall, but freshmen linebackers Bruce Carter (14 tackles) and Sturdivant (41 tackles) will be key if the Tar Heels hope to contain Choice in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

"We are definitely going to have to gang tackle this guy," Burney said. "He runs hard and he's always moving forward. So we are just going to half to gang tackle him, he is one of the top backs in the nation."

3.) UNC's T.J. Yates vs. GT's Pass Defense

While fans may not be impressed with red-shirt freshman T.J. Yates' performance ever since the South Florida debacle, it is important to note that a non-existent running game (93.7 yards per game -- 108th nationally) has played a significant role in opposing defenses taking a more aggressive approach with the Marietta, Ga. signal caller.

"[We have] to try to put T.J. in more of a comfortable situation to where he can operate and not necessarily maybe be under as much duress and pressure," head coach Butch Davis said. "That, I think, will enhance his decision-making ability and will allow him to be much, much more efficient."

Yates ranks fourth in the conference in completions per game (18.6), but falls to eighth in passing efficiency (126.32). Certainly, his 2,297 yards passing on a 60.8 completion percentage has been solid, while his 16 interceptions have not.

"He's pretty mobile," Gailey said. "He can move around. He's not going to run for 50 or 60 yards in a game, but he can get out of the pocket, get on the edge and throw the football with accuracy. He's an accurate passer, and he's making pretty good decisions. That's what I see right now. They're putting him in a position to do a lot of good things."

The freshman quarterback has his work cut out for him on Saturday, as the Yellow Jackets boast the No. 6 defense nationally, including a pass defense allowing just 202.5 yards per game. Oddly enough, Georgia Tech ranks dead last in the conference in interceptions (5) – four less than Duke, who holds down the No. 11 spot.

That lack of turnovers is the culprit behind the Yellow Jacket's poor ranking in pass efficiency defense (119.4 is eighth-best in the ACC), and should provide Yates an opportunity to throw the ball down the field, provided his offensive line can buy him enough time again the vaunted Rambling Wreck defensive line. End Darrell Robertson (29 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and tackle Vance Walker (36 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks) lead a defensive unit designed to pressure the quarterback with a variety of looks.

"We've gotten a lot more cerebral, understanding of the game of football," junior Darryl Richard said. "And when you have four guys who understand the game of football and communicate across the line, it helps you in attacking protections."

4.) UNC's John Shoop vs. GT's Jon Tenuta

John Shoop has experienced ups and downs during his first season as a collegiate offensive coordinator, which was to be expected with an offense starting freshmen at quarterback and running back. Nothing has been easy since the James Madison season opener, and his toughest challenge of the season may be quickly approaching in Atlanta against former North Carolina defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.

If you're looking for the definition of an aggressive college defense, the Rambling Wreck would be a great place to start – Tenuta's philosophy is to barrage opposing offenses with a multitude of blitzes from every conceivable angle. His defensive unit is ranked sixth nationally, and has posted 94 tackles for loss and 42 sacks on the season.

"[It's] just the variety of the blitzes that they bring," senior center Scott Lenahan said. "And not only that, but also how much they bring them. They blitz up to 55 times in a game, which is a lot of blitzes. You know you've got your work cut out for you, and you definitely have got to keep your head on a swivel [and] keep your eyes up and looking around."

Shoop has shown some creative flashes at times this fall – most notably against South Carolina – but his play calling has taken a conservative turn over the last three ball games. In his defense, he has been shackled to a degree with a lackluster ground game, but utilizing wide receivers Greg Little and Brandon Tate in the rushing attack would possibly give Yates enough time to catch his breath and complete a downfield pass to his wideouts – the strength of this Tar Heel offense.

"They are a good pass team and attack mixed with a combination of the running game," said senior safety Djay Jones. "They have some great receivers who make plays. We just have to go out there and win the match-up, be one-on-one, and when the ball is in the air it has to be ours."

5.) UNC's Pass Defense vs. GT's Taylor Bennett

The Tar Heels appeared dead in the water last Saturday in Raleigh, N.C. Down 17-0, the Wolfpack was driving deep into UNC territory when Daniel Evans was intercepted by freshman cornerback Charles Brown at the eight-yard line, who promptly returned the pick for a score that gave North Carolina life. Fellow freshman cornerback Kendric Burney matched his teammate in the fourth quarter, scoring on a 76-yard interception return than gave the Tar Heels a temporary lead late in the ball game.

"We always talk about at least somebody making a play," Burney said. "Like last week [against Maryland], Hilee [Taylor] got that sack and turned the defense around. Charlie Brown made a great interception and took it back [92] yards. It was a big boost for our defense."

Those types of plays may be available this weekend in Atlanta, as Georgia Tech's Taylor Bennett has struggled all season long, completing 131-of-261 passes for 1,712 yards with eight interceptions and only four touchdowns. The junior had arguably his best performance of the season against Duke last Saturday, completing 11-of-23 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns – a much better showing than the previous week's four interception, 11-of-26 passing display in the loss to Virginia Tech.

"He threw some great balls," Gailey said. "He made some really good throws – two clutch throws there late."

If North Carolina's front four, led by Taylor's ten sacks and five quarterback hurries from the defensive end spot, can put significant pressure on Bennett throughout the afternoon, the Tar Heel secondary (201.2 yards allowed per game is third-best in the ACC) will have some more looks at momentum-changing defensive plays.

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