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Defense falls apart in UNC football’s 46-42 loss to Georgia Tech

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UNC senior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) attempts to tackle Georgia Tech redshirt senior running back Dontae Smith (4) during the football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. UNC fell to Georgia Tech 46-42.

ATLANTA — Bend, don’t break. 

That’s the motto the No. 17 North Carolina football team's defense has lived by this year.

But on Saturday night, in a 46-42 loss to Georgia Tech, the defense broke. 

After holding the Yellow Jackets scoreless in the first quarter, UNC allowed Georgia Tech to rack up 24 points in the second. A similar picture was painted in the second half. The Tar Heels didn’t break in the third, but the floodgates opened in the fourth, with the team giving up 22 points.

“I didn’t know what to say,” head coach Mack Brown said. “I’ve been doing this 35 years and I’ve never seen two quarters that bad, two quarters that good.”

Saturday night marked the first time in 46 games under Brown that the Tar Heels failed to pull out the win when scoring more than 40 points. The offense did its job — something Brown was quick to point out — but the defense fell short. 

North Carolina struggled all night to keep up with the quick tempo of Georgia Tech’s offense, leaving the defense fighting from behind to get set for plays. The Yellow Jackets’ offense caught the Tar Heels off guard with schematic tweaks that revolved around quick bubble screens, hitch routes and read options.

“I felt like we looked a little lost on defense in the first half,” senior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “I think [in the] second half, we played good third-quarter football. [The] fourth quarter came [with] a little bit of the same thing — tempo.” 

In the opening drive of the fourth quarter, Georgia Tech marched down the field in less than three minutes, passing the ball just once, to bring the game within three points. 

From there on out, the Yellow Jackets were able to run the ball down the Tar Heels' throats — including a 52-yard quarterback keeper on a read option that helped set up Georgia Tech's go-ahead touchdown – and accrued 246 yards on the ground.

Before that, the Tar Heels had given up 102 rushing yards through three quarters.

Over the past two weeks, the UNC defense of old — the one notorious for giving up 40 points in the fourth quarter last year against Appalachian State — has started to show itself. 

“Did our defense play bad for two quarters? Absolutely,” Brown said. “As bad as we played since App State last year? Absolutely. Did we not play good on defense last week? I didn’t think so. So we got to get better on defense the last four weeks.”

However, no matter how harsh Brown is on the defense, the team isn’t letting these two losses against Virginia and Georgia Tech define their season. 

“Those guys on defense, they’ve played so well this year,” sophomore quarterback Drake Maye said. “You can’t let one bad game — kind of the App State game last year — define them. They got great players and [have been] making plays all year.”

And, as the defense aims to quell the brewing doubt surrounding the unit, Gray still has confidence and knows his defense has what it takes. 

“These are guys I go to war with, I train with, I battle with,” Gray said. “Every day I seen the work that they put in and I don’t lose no confidence in them. You just got to keep fighting.” 

@mdmaynard74

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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