What unfolded over 177 minutes and 134 plays from scrimmage on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora encapsulated in three words after the game.
“They outplayed us,” he said.
That was about it. In earning a 33-7 win over North Carolina – tasty retribution for Georgia Tech’s three-game losing streak to the Tar Heels, including a 48-20 shearing last year in Chapel Hill, N.C. – the Yellow Jackets trampled their opponent while improving to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the ACC.
They did so by forcing 403 rushing yards down the Tar Heels’ gullet, permitting them to convert just two of 12 third downs and limiting them to only 4.3 yards per play. Only a window-dressing touchdown prevented Tech from serving Fedora his first defeat by shutout in his 123-game career as a head coach.
The Tar Heels (1-4, 0-3) are not a good team. Six players from last year’s team were NFL draftees. Injuries have claimed the season of 13 players and kept eight starters out of Saturday’s lineup. In some ways, Saturday’s game was a rerun of last Saturday’s victory over Pittsburgh – a win against an underwhelming Coastal Division opponent that was memorable for a monster run-game performance, fumbles and a defensive effort that suppressed the opposition.
Given the level of competition, then, it may not have been supremely instructive in offering insight into the course of the remainder of the season. But, beyond the primary objective, it did have its purposes. The Jackets won impressively while still making clear that there is plenty to work on. That ought to be a presumably tolerable combination for a team that, remember, is working in new starters at its two most critical offensive positions, quarterback and B-back.
After losing four fumbles against Pitt, Jackets ballcarriers were separated from the ball three more times against North Carolina, each avoidable, and lost two of them. The passing game was not sharp. Defensively, the work was high grade as it had been against Pitt, but coach Paul Johnson reminded that the Tar Heels offense is not particularly potent.
“I don’t feel like we played our best,” said defensive end Antonio Simmons, who scored his third sack in the past two games and was credited with a quarterback hurry.
Saturday also served to reveal more of the Jackets’ playmaking acumen.
In recent years of the Johnson tenure, the Jackets have often succeeded with effort, execution, some bounces and Johnson’s playcalling wizardry and not necessarily by having the more talented players on the field. It’s one reason why the four-man pass rush has often failed to produce results.
While postseason honors and draft results are not all-telling barometers, Tech’s nine-win team from 2016, which beat Virginia Tech and Georgia on the road, exemplified that grit. The roster produced one All-ACC selection (center Freddie Burden) and one 2017 draftee (kicker Harrison Butker), though quarterback Justin Thomas was clearly exceptional.
Saturday, quarterback TaQuon Marshall scored the game-opening touchdown, a five-yard dash to the pylon, by escaping an unblocked defensive lineman in the backfield. He showed Thomas-like burst on his 65-yard run and Joshua Nesbitt-like power by breaking two tackles to pick up a fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter.
On B-back KirVonte Benson’s game-sealing 63-yard touchdown run in the third quarter – which started with Braun pulling from left guard to seal off the right edge – Benson stepped through one tackle attempt at the line and then shucked two more defenders before bursting to the sideline.
Later, Johnson was livid with Benson for fumbling as he tried to reach for the goal line with the ball.
“Having said that, he makes some plays,” Johnson said.
On defense, on Simmons’ sack, he shot past right tackle Charlie Heck so quickly that Heck could barely lay a hand on him. Safety A.J. Gray showed anticipation and explosion in his first interception, the one that led to Benson’s touchdown run. Gray sped across the field from one hashmark to the other as he trailed wide receiver Jordan Cunningham and then accelerated to jump the deep crossing route.
Both Simmons and Gray have improved from last season.
“I know my job, so it allows me to play fast and just do things,” Gray said.
The collection of difference makers doesn’t mean that Tech will take down the heavyweights that loom on the schedule after its open date this coming week, starting with Miami October 14. (Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia also await, although Wake Forest, Virginia and Duke all look like tougher matchups than Pitt or North Carolina.)
But, combined with consistent effort and the improvement that the team has shown, it gives the Jackets more of a chance.
“I think sometimes I try to do a little too much and it costs me,” Marshall said. “But I guess it’s the risk you have to take when you’re trying to extend a play and trying to make something happen and get the game going.”