The Yellow Jackets enter Saturday's contest with a 2-1 (1-1 ACC) record, defeating Jacksonville State (37-17) and Clemson (30-27) before losing to Miami (33-17) last Thursday. Johnson's quirky yet effective rushing attack is churning out 243.7 yards per game, while the passing attack has found a legitimate weapon in Demaryius Thomas (13 catches, 327 yards, 2 TD). While the Yellow Jackets have only attempted 42 passing attempts all season, they are averaging 24.2 yards per completion.
After a strong first half against Clemson (24-0) to start the '09 ACC slate, Georgia Tech has been outscored 60-23. But Johnson's defense is loaded with returning starters everywhere but up front, and once the new faces along the defensive line mature, the Yellow Jackets will be able to match a potent ground game with a stout defense – a combination that is traditionally hard to beat.
"They've added some things ... to get the ball to the perimeter that last year really and truly weren't there for them just because of the added talent that they've got on their roster. Which makes it even more difficult [to defend]. So you've got to play disciplined. You've got to tackle well." – UNC head coach Butch Davis on Georgia Tech's offense
"We could never get them off the field. In a game like that, you better maximize and we didn't. We played very poorly on offense." – Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson on his team's 33-17 loss to Miami
Yellow Jacket Spotlight
Jonathan Dwyer didn't take much time in reminding the nation that he is the reigning 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, taking an option pitch on the first play from scrimmage 74 yards for a touchdown in the season-opener against Jacksonville State.
And it likely won't take more than one snap on Saturday for the Marietta, Ga. junior to eclipse the 2,000-yard career mark, considering that he only needs one yard. His personal stat book is stunning – 23 career rushing touchdowns, seven multi-touchdown games and three of the 13 longest runs in school history.
After posting insane numbers as a sophomore (1,395 yards, 12 TD), Dwyer has only totaled 168 rushing yards and two touchdowns in ‘09. But he sat out the second half of the Jacksonville State blowout and missed the majority of last week's loss to Miami with a shoulder stinger.
Dwyer told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution on Monday that the relative slow start hasn't put a damper on the early part of his junior season.
"Those big plays will come," Dwyer said. "I have to be patient and not get frustrated. Sooner or later it'll happen. Everybody will feed off me and I'll feed off everybody else, too."
Matchups to Watch
Georgia Tech's ground game vs. North Carolina's run defense
Georgia Tech leads the ACC and ranks 16th nationally in rushing offense (243.7 yards per game). North Carolina leads the ACC and ranks seventh nationally in rushing defense (52.3 yards per game). On Saturday, something's going to have to give.
While Paul Johnson's run-oriented offense that features the triple option ran roughshod through the ACC last season, Butch Davis's program was one of only two to hold the Yellow Jackets under 10 points in the 28-7 victory in Chapel Hill. Fans tend to lean on statistics a little too much, as evidenced by the fact that so many point out that Georgia Tech gained 326 yards on the ground. But 120 of those yards came after UNC had already built a 21-0 lead late in the contest.
Also consider that John Lovett served on Davis' defensive staff for two years before taking the blueprint on defending Georgia Tech to Miami as defensive coordinator. The result? A similarly-talented Hurricane defense held the Yellow Jackets to 95 rushing yards on 39 carries. In last year's loss to UNC and last week's defeat at Miami, Georgia Tech reached the red zone just three times and needed big plays for two of those excursions – 39-yard and 56-yard pass plays to Demaryius Thomas last Saturday.
The apparent key is speed laced with discipline.
"It certainly is one of the things you talk to your football team about - option responsibility," Davis said.
Defensive end Robert Quinn echoed those sentiments, saying, "If you start over thinking and trying to do too much, that's when things get out of whack. You listen to the call, try to be disciplined and read your keys and assignments."
Gaining positive yards on first and second down will be crucial for Nesbitt and Co – against UNC last season, the Yellow Jackets faced a 3rd-and-4 or worse nine times and were only able to convert two of them. It helps that Dwyer has a side kick in Louisville transfer Anthony Allen, who broke out with 127 yards and a touchdown on just five carries against Clemson.
North Carolina's offensive line vs. Georgia Tech's defensive line
After struggles through the first seven quarters of the '09 season, North Carolina's offensive line awoke from its injury-induced slumber to lead the Tar Heels to 581 total yards of offense over the last five quarters.
"It definitely makes us feel better that we know we can move the ball," senior left tackle Kyle Jolly said. "We're not as frustrated as we were during the UConn game. We proved to other people that this is not just a defensive team – they have to look out for our offense, too."
When given time, T.J. Yates (51-of-76 passing, 574 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) has been incredibly efficiently in leading John Shoop's offense, and his protection will be key yet again on Saturday.
The preseason headlines touted Georgia Tech's eight returning starters on defense, but the three losses were large – literally and figuratively – in All-American defensive end Michael Johnson (46 tkl, 9 sacks, 8.5 tfl) and All-ACC defensive tackles Vance Walker and Darryl Richard.
The lone remaining member of last season's dominant defensive line has lived up to his billing. Defensive end Derrick Morgan, a 6-4, 275-pound junior from Coatesville, Pa., had had a game-high 10 tackles, a personal-best four tackles for loss and three sacks in Georgia Tech's 30-27 win over Clemson two weeks ago.
But Morgan cannot do it all on his own. After ranking in the top-30 in both total defense and scoring defense in '08, the Yellow Jackets are surrendering 377 yards (87th) and 25.7 points (78th) per contest. It certainly doesn't help that starting defensive end Robert Hall (knee) will not play on Saturday.