The No. 21 North Carolina football team (2-1, 1-1 ACC) will play Georgia Tech (1-2, 0-1 ACC) in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia Saturday.
Despite the Yellow Jackets boasting a one-win record and losing to Northern Illinois, a Group of Five team whose lone win so far this season came against Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels shouldn’t overlook their opponent.
Georgia Tech, whose campus is an seven-minute drive from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, will essentially have the home field advantage against UNC. While the Yellow Jackets are under .500 through three games, they narrowly lost to then-No. 6 Clemson (2-1, 1-0 ACC) on the road, indicating they may be better than their record says.
The Tar Heels enter Saturday’s game favored by 12 points. Here are three keys to the game for North Carolina to avoid an upset:
Contain running back Jahmyr Gibbs
Georgia Tech first-year running back Jahmyr Gibbs has lived up to his nomination to the 2021 Preseason All-ACC team at the all-purpose position.Gibbs’ 185 rushing yards leads the Yellow Jackets, and his 78 receiving yards make him the team’s third-leading receiver.
With starting quarterback Jeff Sims missing time due to injury and the team's offense typically struggling, Gibbs has been the one consistent offensive threat for the Yellow Jackets.
Shutting Gibbs down, or at least limiting his productivity, will play a critical role in UNC’s game plan. The Tar Heels can increase their chances of winning by keying in on Gibbs and slowing him down — not only because he’s the Yellow Jackets’ best offensive player, but also because it forces Georgia Tech to find another playmaker capable of keeping up with the high-scoring UNC offense.
The Yellow Jackets also place a significant emphasis on time of possession, which played a key role in their near-upset of Clemson. Forcing them to take the ball out of Gibbs’ hands and pass more will help the Tar Heels keep the Yellow Jackets’ time of possession to a minimum.
Run the ball
Georgia Tech ranks 11th in rush defense in the ACC this season, allowing 161.3 rushing yards to opponents per game. The Yellow Jackets’ secondary, however, ranks first in the ACC in pass defense and held Clemson’s star receiver Justyn Ross to just 61 receiving yards.
The Tar Heels will likely look to graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler — whose 322 rushing yards lead the team — to help exploit the Georgia Tech defense’s weakness and avoid the Yellow Jacket secondary.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei’s 46 rushing yards against the Yellow Jackets played a significant role in their victory. UNC could also look to junior quarterback Sam Howell to supplement the rushing attack. Howell rushed for 112 yards against Virginia and has been a reliable, productive ball carrier this season.
The Yellow Jackets’ defense forced at least one turnover in each of its first three games. Against Clemson, the Georgia Tech defense forced two fumbles — with one resulting in a safety — and scored a touchdown from a fumble recovery against Kennesaw State.
Turnovers played a key role in Virginia Tech’s upset victory against the Tar Heels, and fumbles helped keep Georgia State within striking distance heading into the halftime break. Similarly, turnovers gave Georgia Tech critical points and extra time of possession that helped them nearly upset Clemson.
UNC only had one turnover against Virginia — an improvement from the first two games. Head coach Mack Brown's squad must continue to protect the ball in order to avoid their second upset loss of the season.