Georgia Tech provided an instant response with an 11-yard touchdown run by Nathan Cottrell that was set up by a 44-yard run by quarterback TaQuon Marshall.
And unlike the visitors, there was no immediate reaction from UNC’s offense. Instead, the Tar Heels struggled to get much going offensively, mainly because of their inability to run the ball. UNC’s first six carries of the game went for a loss of 1 yard, and the Tar Heels three first-quarter drives resulted in two punts and an interception by Nathan Elliott.
Working with a short field after Elliott’s streak of 219 consecutive passes without an interception was ended, Georgia Tech converted on a 4th-and-short before going ahead 14-7 thanks to a 2-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Tobias Oliver, who replaced Marshall after the Yellow Jackets’ third possession.
On its next drive, the run-crazed Georgia Tech offense surprised the Tar Heel defense with an 88-yard touchdown pass to Qua Searcy off of play-action, one of six plays of 19-plus yards UNC allowed.
UNC’s ensuing drive featured a change at quarterback, as Ruder, the fourth quarterback on scholarship to play this season, spelled Elliott.
In his first period of action, Ruder led UNC down to the Georgia Tech one-yard line before the Tar Heels settled for a field goal to make it a 21-10 game.
In the first half, Ruder completed both of his passes for 27 yards. In the final minute of the second quarter, the Tar Heel defense, powered by Malik Carney and linebacker Cole Holcomb, forced Georgia Tech to turn the ball over on downs at the UNC 6-yard-line, keeping it a two-score game at the break.
Picking up where it left off to start the second half, Georgia Tech methodically went 75 yards on 12 plays and extended its lead 18 points on a 4-yard touchdown run by Clinton Lynch.
Ruder’s good play kept UNC in the game, however. A 44-yard pass to receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams powered a Tar Heel touchdown drive, with the first touchdown of Ruder’s career coming on an 9-yard strike to tight end Carl Tucker.
Following the drive, Ruder exited the game and was seen walking to the UNC locker room. He did not return and completed 4-of-5 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in his first collegiate game.
Having been benched earlier, Elliott re-entered and connected with Ratliff-Williams for a 35-yard pass that set up a 25-yard field goal by Freeman Jones, making it a 28-20 game.
While it had certainly given up yards in bunches at times, the UNC defense came up with its second crucial fourth-down stop of the game, stopping Georgia Tech’s Oliver at midfield on fourth-and-inches.
Three plays later, running back Michael Carter on 3rd-and-seven broke free for a 46-yard run to Georgia Tech’s 1-yard line.
One play later, Antonio Williams punched it from one yard out, and UNC tied the game on a successful two-point conversion that saw Elliott connect with Ratliff-Williams on a fade route.
Unfortunately for UNC, it gave the ball right back as Elliott was picked off for a second time, this time by Tariq Carpenter.
Georgia Take capitalized, converting a 4th-and-one at the UNC 20 before scoring on a quarterback keeper by Oliver from one yard out with three minutes left in the game.
Down by 7 with three minutes remaining, UNC had good field position at its own 36-yard line after a solid kickoff return by Ratliff-Williams, but Elliott was intercepted for the second time on as many passes, this time by Anree Saint-Amour.
Who stood out?
Ruder’s debut captured everyone’s attention, especially because of the zip and accuracy he had on his throws. While his day was cut short due to injury, Ruder, like fellow first-year Cade Fortin, showed promise in his first spell of action.
In vintage form, Ratliff-Williams showcased his playmaking ability, as he had catches of 35 and 44 yards on his way to a 103-yard performance.
Defensively, Holcomb became the first UNC defender since 2007 to record 20-plus tackles. Statistics aside, Holcomb was in on the tackle when Georgia Tech failed to convert on 4th-and-two at the end of the first half, and he provided the strip on the Yellow Jackets’ third fumble of the day.
Like Holcomb, Carney came to play. The defensive end entered Saturday’s contest with the team-lead in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (7.5) despite playing in just four contests. Against the Yellow Jackets, the senior took it upon himself to put UNC on the board and was one of three Tar Heels with 10-plus tackles.
When was it decided?
When Georgia Tech’s Lynch scored from four yards out early in the third quarter to give his team an 18-point lead, UNC had a tough hole to climb out of. Against the odds, UNC pulled even, and wasn’t truly out of the game until Elliott’s third interception of the game, which came right after the Yellow Jackets went ahead 35-28 with less than three minutes remaining.
Why does it matter?
UNC’s dreams of a bowl game are officially dead, which means UNC will have to play for pride down the stretch for the second time in as many years.
The Tar Heels were also once again denied a win against a Power 5 opponent other than Pittsburgh, something they haven’t enjoyed since a 48-20 victory over the Yellow Jackets on Nov. 5, 2016.
When do they play next
UNC will head to Durham to face rival Duke in a battle for the Victory Bell next Saturday at 12:20 p.m.
The Tar Heels have lost two straight to the Blue Devils since beating Duke 66-31 in 2015.
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