The 2-4 North Carolina football team is coming off its fourth straight loss, this time on the road at No. 5 Notre Dame by a 50-43 margin. But this defeat was far more palatable. The Tar Heels surprisingly held the lead heading into the fourth quarter in South Bend, playing with much more energy and aggression.
This week, the UNC players and head coach Larry Fedora have even drawn comparisons to the tough 27-23 loss to top-ten-ranked Miami last season that served as the turning point in the Tar Heels’ season.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, suffered its first loss of the season last week in a home loss to Coastal rival Duke. At 5-1, though, the Ramblin’ Wreck will still like their chances at getting to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game, having already beaten Virginia Tech and Miami.
Carolina and Georgia Tech will meet Saturday in Chapel Hill at 7 p.m. for the 50th time overall. The Yellow Jackets hold a 28-18-3 all-time series advantage, including wins in the 14 of the last 16 head-to-head matchups.
The UNC offense displayed how potent it can be last week at South Bend. Marquise Williams’ dual-threat ability, in particular, frustrated the vaunted Fighting Irish defense. When UNC is hot, they’re on fire. When they’re cold, however, they’re freezing. Again, it’s like a broken record, but it bares repeating. If the Tar Heels can figure out a way to establish more consistency in a largely nonexistent running game, they would really take some pressure away from Williams and keep opposing defenses more honest.
Trick plays continue to work wonders for the Tar Heels. In fact, five different UNC players have thrown a touchdown this season. You should expect more surprises up Coach Fedora’s sleeve against the Yellow Jackets. The young UNC offensive linemen have been thrown into the fire the last few weeks against some of the best defenses in the country – Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Facing a good, but not great GT this week will feel like a breath of fresh air. No GT defensive ends or defensive tackles weigh in over the 300-pound mark on the scales. With that in mind, Williams should have more time to get the ball out to his vast array of playmakers.
As for the Jackets, they’re extremely efficient. GT is the only FBS team ranked in the top ten in both 3rd down and 4th down conversions. The Jackets also lead the nation with a 58.9 percent 3rd down conversion rate. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. The triple option sets up short-yardage situations on the money downs. Head coach Paul Johnson isn’t afraid to roll the dice either. He hates to punt and loves to go for it on fourth down. The Jackets are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas. Thomas ranks second among FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards per game. In addition to Thomas, GT relies heavily on senior running back Zach Laskey. He has 105 carries for 523 yards and 3 touchdowns so far in 2014. In addition, Laskey has recorded only four negative carries in 322 career rushing attempts. As always, GT will be eager to pad the offensive stats, especially against a UNC defense that historically struggles mightily against them.
The Tar Heels are steadily improving week-to-week. I know the scoreboard hasn’t necessarily shown it, but greater defensive energy and more pressure being applied up front has been noticeable in recent weeks. Even more encouraging for the Tar Heels is their ability, so far, to force turnovers each and every game.
But missed tackling and a porous secondary can still double-team to give up disastrous big plays for the Tar Heels at inopportune times. Let’s be honest, UNC ranks dead last in scoring defense, averaging giving up an astonishing 43.3 points each game.This week, more than any other, gap assignments and discipline will be paramount for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s boys.
The Jackets, meanwhile, are always tough to figure out on defense. Why? Because of how well their offense handles the ball and chews up clock. The defensive front struggles to penetrate into opposing backfields, only managing seven sacks this season – that’s good enough for last in the ACC. But GT does have a talented secondary that doesn’t allow too many big plays and is opportunistic, snagging eight interceptions through six games. What’s more, they’re only giving up 25 points per contest this season, although I don’t think they’ve played anybody with the quick-strike ability of the Tar Heels.
Both teams rank at or near the top in a majority of special teams departments. Their punt and kickoff teams are very solid. UNC’s Coach Fedora, though, is still waiting for that game-changing play from his special teams unit. Will he get it this week? Paul Johnson, meanwhile, has a special teams weapon. GT junior defensive back Chris Milton is tied for second in the FBS with two blocked kicks already this season. Last year, he was the only player in the nation to block three punts. The Tar Heels will have home-field advantage working for them Saturday night. Night-time crowds at Kenan Stadium can definitely produce hostile atmospheres.
This game will come down to the start. UNC has to take a page out of Duke’s book. Yes, arch-rival Duke. The key? Establish a lead early on and force the Yellow Jackets to try to play their triple option from behind. Last week, the Yellow Jackets coughed up the football multiple times. It cost them big-time as they fell too far behind to make a rally against the Blue Devils. If Georgia Tech can avoid those mistakes against Carolina and keep their offense on schedule, they should eat up a ton of clock and have the upper-hand. What’s more, the young Tar Heel defense hasn’t experienced much success against any offense this season, let alone the ultra-frustrating triple option they’re about to face Saturday night.
However, there’s hope still for the Tar Heels. If they can get Marquise Williams and their explosive offense rolling early on and come up with a key turnover or two on defense, which they’ve shown they can do, UNC can jump out to a double-digit cushion and Georgia Tech may be forced to get out of its comfort zone. History and records both strongly favor Georgia Tech, I know. Call me crazy, but I’m picking the Tar Heels, with their backs up against the wall, to somehow find the right Kenan Stadium night magic to avoid the annual Yellow Jacket sting.
UNC 45, GT 41
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