In the days leading up to North Carolina and Georgia Tech's clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this weekend, many anticipated a blowout.
The outcome being the No. 21 Tar Heels — who entered the game as 12-point favorites — beating the unranked Yellow Jackets, obviously.
When UNC junior quarterback Sam Howell dodged not one, not two, but five defenders to jump out to an early 7-0 lead, he affirmed North Carolina fans' confidence.
That was until Georgia Tech changed quarterbacks late in the second quarter, with Jeff Sims stepping onto the turf. Sims was the prototypical mobile quarterback the Tar Heels have struggled to contain over the past few seasons, which was made even more evident after he came in and scored three touchdowns and rushed for 128 yards.
Sims brought the energy the Yellow Jackets needed, and paired with a stout defense that sacked Howell eight times, UNC was the team that was blown out of the water, 45-22.
“Was I surprised? I'm always surprised when we play poorly as a team,” North Carolina head coach Mack Brown said. “We work really, really hard to put a great product on the field for our institution and for our fans and for each other. And we didn't do that tonight.”
Howell struggled to make plays against the Yellow Jackets' defense, which is nationally ranked in five categories: passing defense, defensive touchdowns, red zone defense, total defense and — the most evident in this game — fumble recovery.
Howell fumbled the ball three times Saturday night, and each resulted in points for Georgia Tech.
“They like to tackle the football,” Howell said. “I know they'd rather try to force a fumble to make the tackle. So ball security was a big emphasis for us and I should’ve done a better job out there.”
Two other items on the laundry list of things that went wrong during that game were UNC’s sloppy play and unprepared defensive line. North Carolina tallied up seven penalties which resulted in 69 yards of pushback and one false start in the second quarter, costing the team a field goal.
Additionally, the team’s defensive playbook was only well-prepared for Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback, Jordan Yates.
“We thought (Yates) was going to be the guy throughout the game,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “So we really didn't game plan too much for both quarterbacks.”
When Yates was in for the majority of the first half, North Carolina only gave up 81 yards to the Yellow Jackets, compared to 313 in the second half.
In a broader context, this Coastal battle was the final big ACC matchup of the weekend. Just 30 minutes down the road from Chapel Hill, top conference contender Clemson suffered a shocking upset loss as well, when it fell to unranked N.C. State in double overtime.
“Anybody who follows college football and watches these scores every Saturday, they're crazy,” Brown said. “And crazy things are happening and less teams are beating better teams.”
These trends reveal weakness in the ACC and the value of the home-field advantage. UNC — now 1-2 in conference games — has yet to win away from Kenan Stadium, where it is slated to have its next three ACC contests.
In order to rise above the rest of its conference foes, North Carolina will need to clean up its play and be quicker on its feet.
Howell was consistently sacked because of holes in the offensive line, UNC’s running game struggled against Georgia Tech and prepared defense and penalties forced the Tar Heels back when they needed the yards the most.
All of this contributed to UNC fans’ biggest nightmare — a blowout in Georgia Tech’s favor.
“We had our ass handed to us,” Gemmel said. “Everybody needs to go home, look themselves in the mirror and see what they can do extra during the week to get better and be better for the team.”
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