North Carolina's defense came up huge as the fourth quarter reached its half-way point, sacking Georgia Tech quarterback Taylor Bennett at the goal line and forcing a fumble, recovered by Hilee Taylor at the two-yard line. Two plays later, North Carolina had taken an improbable lead, 25-24 on Anthony Elzy's one-yard run and Connor Barth's extra point.
"Our defense bailed us out time and time again," head coach Butch Davis said. "Without their performance today, we have no chance to win." The Tar Heels sacked the Tech quarterback four times on the day, and they had only given up nine sacks all year long. The defense also forced four fumbles.
After the Tar Heels took the lead, Georgia Tech got a terrific return (48 yards), they put themselves in position to kick a field goal, which missed wide right.
The Tar Heels had the lead with 2:31 seconds remaining. Three runs later, the Tar Heels were forced to punt. Had North Carolina managed a single first down in that final drive, they would have had their first road victory under head coach Butch Davis.
Instead, Georgia Tech kicked the winning field goal with 16 seconds left.
"It is definitely frustrating: its heartbreaking every time, it never gets easy, but I am definitely proud of the resiliency of a lot of the guys on the team, you get your heartbroken once, twice, three times, four times – all these guys pick themselves by their bootstraps and come back out here and keep fighting. That makes me proud as a senior and as a captain of the team," senior center Scott Lenahan said.
Little at Running Back Aids Offense
In a surprise move, true freshman wide receiver Greg Little was moved to running back and started the game. Despite one miscue on a toss from Yates, Little looked comfortable at tail back, ran fluidly, and got additional yards after initial contact.
"You want to talk about a crash-course in learning this week, you can't say enough at what Little did," Davis said.
It is not an exaggeration to say Little, against a stout Georgia Tech run defense, turned in one of the better performances of the year for North Carolina at that position. Little was also a threat catching the ball out of the backfield, catching 3 passes for 13 yards.
"It was definitely a challenge getting that many touches, because at running back you do get banged up a little bit more than at wide receiver," Little said. "It was a heavy load to carry, but I think I did pretty well."
"He did amazing," Yates said. "He ran the ball hard, never went down, kept giving second and third effort the whole game. I think he did a great job. I think he's a great weapon for us."
North Carolina has had fewer red-zone opportunities than any Atlantic Coast Conference team with the exception of Duke – when they get them they need to convert touchdowns.
"Teams that are good offenses in the red-zone are teams that can run the football. Because that field gets short – they are not worried about defending seventy-five yards, they are thinking about defending a basketball court. Until we as a football team become a much, much better run offense, we are always going to struggle (in the red-zone)," Davis said.
To start the fourth quarter, however, Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates connected with Hakeem Nicks on a 17-yard touchdown pass – finally getting six points from within the red-zone.
Asked to explain how the Tar Heels can improve in the red-zone, quarterback T.J. Yates said. "The most important thing is to get the running game going in the red-zone because it is really tight quarters down there within the passing game, so we definitely we've got to work on the running game and be able to just pound it in there."
"You have to look yourself in the mirror on that, it is all about, down there, who wants it more," Little said. "I think had four touches in the red-zone, I'm a guy who likes to put the blame on my shoulders, and I feel like if I would have gotten those two touchdowns in the red-zone, we'd have come out with the win."
Choice Hurts Tar Heels
Tashard Choice, the leading rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, hurt the Tar Heel defense on the day, rushing for 146 yards on 33 carries.
Choice also tossed Georgia Tech's first touchdown pass, a 17-yard first-quarter completion to Tech quarterback Taylor Bennett – a trick play which caught the Tar Heels by surprise.
Quarterback Variety Difficult to Defend
Georgia Tech used a variety of options at quarterback. Taylor Bennett was predominately under center, but also used Josh Nesbitt effectively under center effectively, running the ball four times for 53 yards. Tech also used the direct snap option to Choice on several occasions.
"It forces you to segment your practice routine because you have to prepare for an awful lot of stuff…they did a nice job of mixing those two guys in," Davis said.
Key Stat to Note
- UNC – 1 for 13 third-down conversions