For about two and a half quarters on Saturday, North Carolina, beleaguered by defeats and battered by injuries, acquitted itself perhaps better than anyone could have reasonably expected at Georgia Tech, where the Tar Heels have won but once in the past 20 years.
UNC’s defense, to that point, had put forth its best defensive effort of the season, the Tar Heels frustrating and stopping the Yellow Jackets’ vaunted triple-option enough to give UNC a chance. And though the offense had faltered, it hadn’t done anything particularly harmful.
Like commit a turnover, say. That changed, though, on Chazz Surratt’s interception, which led, on Georgia Tech’s next offensive play, to a 63-yard touchdown run. Which, in turn, helped lead to the apparent lopsidedness of the Yellow Jackets’ 33-7 victory at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
For UNC, so much for moral victories.
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The Tar Heels (1-4, 0-2 ACC) could have argued progress, especially defensively, had they remained competitive on Saturday. Instead, though, things turned ugly – or uglier, on offense – while their defense, which spent about two-thirds of the first half on the field, wore down.
UNC mustered but 247 yards, its third-fewest under head coach Larry Fedora. Georgia Tech finished with 456.
Amid the breakdown on Saturday, first there was that 63-yard touchdown, which came on a run from KirVonte Benson. On the Yellow Jackets’ next drive, after they’d forced one of six UNC punts, quarterback TaQuon Marshall gained 65 yards with a run of his own.
With that, the Yellow Jackets (3-1, 2-0) moved inside of the UNC 15-yard line. Georgia Tech scored a few plays later on a 12-yard pass on a third-and-9 play – which was one of the eight of the 16 third downs the Yellow Jackets converted. Stopping teams on third down has been a problem for UNC, and so it was again.
Injuries have also been problematic. UNC arrived at Georgia Tech with the assurance that eight starters would not play because of injury. The Tar Heels on Saturday were without their top three receivers, and one of the reserves there, Devin Perry, sustained an injury after making his first catch of the season.
The injuries, combined with Georgia Tech’s defense, combined to result in one of UNC’s worst offensive outputs under coach Larry Fedora, who is in his sixth season. Fedora is known for his commitment to an uptempo spread offense, which has had plenty of his success in his years with the Tar Heels.
Yet on Saturday, the only suspense during the fourth quarter was whether they would score. Under Fedora, no UNC team had ever been shut out. None of the 10 teams that Fedora has led as a head coach – including four at Southern Mississippi – had ever finished a game scoreless.
The Tar Heels, then, were in danger of making dubious history before Jordon Brown scored on an 8-yard run without about five minutes remaining. A small contingent of the UNC band played the fight song, and UNC went through a half-hearted celebration.
There was little solace, though. UNC has now lost four of its first five games. Its injuries continue to mount. The challenge ahead, including a game next Saturday against Notre Dame, only looks more daunting.