The impression I’ve received from talking with Georgia Tech players this week is that the loss to Duke was a sobering result and reinforced the necessity to play with focus and effort. I think it also riled them up, also.
“Excited to get back out there,” defensive tackle Adam Gotsis said. “You just want to get that taste out of your mouth. No one like’s sitting there off a loss. It feels like it’s the longest week before you get to play again. I think everyone’s just ready to get back out there and get back on that train and get it going again.”
To whatever value can be put in such statements – I wasn’t expecting Gotsis to say, “We're packing it in. See you at spring practice.” – I do think Tech will give a better account of itself. That said, the following may be a bit obvious, but this is still a game Tech won't just win by showing up and playing better, just as much as the Virginia Tech and Miami games (and Duke game for that matter) weren't.
I probably am guilty of the following thinking, that, even on the road, a team with a 5-1 record should beat a team that is 2-4 and has lost five games in a row to the first team. Maybe that’s the case, but I’d also say that records can be deceiving. As for the records, Tech could be 3-3 with little trouble, and North Carolina would be 3-3 if it had pulled off the upset at Notre Dame (which it very nearly did). Further, the Tar Heels’ schedule strength is ranked No. 14 by the Sagarin ratings, compared to No. 65 for Tech.
And, as for Tech’s winning streak against the Tar Heels, the Jackets came pretty close to having it end in last year’s rain-soaked game at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
If you remember, North Carolina led 13-0 when Tech drove to the UNC goal line early in the second quarter. On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, B-back David Sims scored on a one-yard run in which he lost control of the ball at the goal line. It was ruled a touchdown on the field, but I remember thinking it would get overturned and was a bit surprised when it was held up. (I think you could hold that call up as evidence against the "North Carolina gets all the calls" conspiracy theory.) So that made the score 13-7 rather than 13-0 with a big momentum change.
Early in the third quarter, UNC quarterback Bryn Renner threw an 82-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer that was brought back by a holding call on the right tackle. It was a legitimate and undeniable penalty and a phenomenal play by Jeremiah Attaochu, but if the tackle had done his job, the Tar Heels would have led 27-14. Instead, after the holding, Attaochu sacked Renner on third down to force a punt, Tech took the lead on the next possession and never trailed again. It might have been Attaochu’s most impactful game of the season.
So that’s 14 points on two plays that I imagine the Tar Heels fans rue the same way that Tech fans do the many decisive plays that went against the Jackets in their four-game losing streak to the Hokies. I'm not saying North Carolina should have won the game. I'm just saying it could easily have done so, and then the "Tech always beats North Carolina" narrative would be out the window.
You can watch a replay of the game here . The fumble is at the 43-minute mark and the hold is at the 1:23:00 mark.
So, anyway, the perception of this game could be considerably different. And, besides, if the past three games have demonstrated anything, it’s that winning streaks by one team over another haven’t counted for much.
Further, I think it’s easy to think that Tech will win because the Tar Heels defense is so atrocious. I’m not sure I’d debate the quality of that side of the ball. The 70-41 loss to East Carolina and 50-35 loss to Clemson make it kind of a hard-to-contend point.
It would be easy to conclude that Tech’s defense, giving up 23.8 points per game to North Carolina’s 42 points per game, is significantly better. I’d say it’s better. The numbers say as much. But by how much?
Consider the ACC’s defenses measured by points per play. It removes the tempo element and essentially quantifies how hard defenses make opponents work for points. I guess it’s maybe a little bit like field-goal percentage defense in basketball.
A couple things stand out to me about the numbers. First, while Duke’s schedule has been pretty light, that's a pretty good number. Perhaps the Blue Devils had more to do with Tech’s red-zone difficulties than one might otherwise have thought. Second, there’s eight teams in the middle of the pack between .322 and .352. Maybe that’s what an average defense does. And then there’s Tech, N.C. State and North Carolina.
The Tar Heels are in the next county over, but it’s not like the Jackets are that close to the middle, either.
Ranked by points per drive by fbsdrivestats.com, North Carolina’s defense is ranked 108th at 2.92. Tech’s is 89th at 2.62. The range of 54-73 (in the middle of the rankings) is 1.84-2.13.
This game might be kind of like those cartoons when the two characters are stuck on an island and each one looks at the other and imagines that he’s a steak or a turkey leg. (I hope you know what I’m talking about.) I would think that North Carolina thinks it has a chance to get healthy off of Tech’s defense.
An interesting number from the site, which measures points per possession (it takes out FCS games and teases out kneel-down drives and possessions at the end of blowouts): Tech is No. 8 in offense points per possession (3.0) while UNC is 96th at 1.68. That's a pretty big difference. But consider what the Tar Heels did against Notre Dame (2.6 points per possession against a defense averaging 1.3) and Clemson (2.3 points per drive against a defense averaging 1.4).
Another reason why the game could be tougher for Tech than you think: UNC quarterback Marquise Williams might be the best quarterback Tech has faced thus far. Coach Paul Johnson is usually complimentary of opposing players, but he took it a level higher when talking about Williams’ performance against Notre Dame last Saturday. Williams was 24-for-41 for 303 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, ran 18 times for a game-high and career-high 132 yards and even caught one pass for a 23-yard touchdown.
“The first guy very seldom if ever got him down,” Johnson said. “He made big plays out of broken plays, those kind of things. He was pretty much a warrior in that game. He played as well as anybody I’ve seen play in a while.”
The last thing I wanted to say. As mentioned earlier, I do think Tech will be more focused and urgent Saturday than it was against Duke. You’d like for it to be a constant, but it’s hard to say it is.
Johnson was asked Tuesday if there’s a carryover, year to year, when it comes to teams and players wanting to settle scores.
“There shouldn’t be,” he said. “But it’s hard to say when you deal with 18-to-22-yearolds.”
“The difference I see in this league and the NFL is you’re still dealing with 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds,” said special-teams coordinator Ray Rychleski , who coached Indianapolis for three years. “No matter how many times you tell them, ‘Hey, this might be the toughest game of the year,’ …”
However, North Carolina could well be feeling the same way. My colleague Andrew Carter at the News-Observer in Raleigh, N.C., who covers North Carolina, had a great tweet Wednesday that spelled out the Tar Heels’ mental state.
The Tar Heels will be at home at night, their backs against the wall, wanting to settle a score. They could give Tech the same sort of performance that the Jackets gave Miami.
This isn't to say Tech shouldn't bother making the trip. I can think of a lot of ways that the Jackets can win this game, starting with playing a low-possession game that forces North Carolina into a game it’s not comfortable playing. Quarterback Justin Thomas continuing his ascent as a game manager and playmaker. Punter Ryan Rodwell helping Tech win the field-position game. The Jackets playing far more efficiently by avoiding the turnovers and penalties that beset them against Duke. Linebackers Quayshawn Nealy and Paul Davis helping hem in Williams. North Carolina continuing its pattern of killer mistakes.
The oddsmakers call this game a pick ’em. I'd say they got it right.