UNC comes undone in second half of 28-20 defeat against Georgia Tech

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

  • Observations

    • UNC and Georgia Tech played through a steady rain, one that at times was a heavy downpour. Yet despite the weather, both teams played a relatively clean game. Georgia Tech fumbled four times but only lost one of them and the Yellow Jackets didn’t throw an interception. UNC didn’t fumble at all, though quarterback Bryn Renner threw an interception, which came in the fourth quarter after his pass was tipped by a defender. UNC coach Larry Fedora said the weather had no effect on his team’s playcalling.

    • For all the pre-game talk of Georgia Tech’s “diamond” formation, the Yellow Jackets rarely used it on Saturday – and when they did it wasn’t nearly as effective as it was last week in their victory at Duke. Georgia Tech mostly stuck to its normal spread-option pre-snap formation, with quarterback Vad Lee under center instead of in the shotgun.

    • UNC averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry, but once again the running game wasn’t a huge part of the Tar Heels’ offense on Saturday. UNC finished with just 101 yards rushing, with Romar Morris and A.J. Blue combining to run for 83 yards on 16 carries. The Tar Heels’ ground game has underwhelmed through the first three games of the season. Overall, the offense gained 319 yards. That’s the second time this season that UNC has been held to fewer than 400 yards – a mark that it surpassed in every game last season.

    Andrew Carter

— From the beginning of North Carolina’s second play of the second half on Saturday, Bryn Renner, the Tar Heels quarterback, liked what he saw. Three receivers lined up to his left and, in front of him, the Georgia Tech defense was in an alignment the Tar Heels had hoped to see.

“(We) got the exact same coverage that we worked on (in practice) for about two weeks,” Renner said later, after UNC suffered a 28-20 loss against the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “And we knew that was going to be a huge play in the game.”

Ryan Switzer, UNC’s freshman receiver, lined up in the middle of a trips formation on the left. After the snap, Switzer raced ahead while Renner avoided defensive pressure. Renner scrambled, stepped up and threw a long pass downfield, where Switzer caught it behind two defenders and ran away for an 82-yard touchdown.

“We’ve run (that play) through the course of the first three (games),” Renner said. “But haven’t got that coverage that we usually want to take advantage of. … (I) kind of just felt that he was going to be open on that play.”

While the Tar Heels (1-2, 0-1) celebrated a play that appeared to give them a 26-14 lead early in the third quarter, a yellow flag rested in the offensive backfield. Holding. Jon Heck, UNC’s freshman right tackle, was called for the penalty, which came on an attempted block that allowed Renner just enough time to make the throw.

If there was a dividing line for UNC between the good and the bad from Saturday, that moment was it. Before the 82-yard touchdown-that-wasn’t, the Tar Heels had scored the first 13 points, had led 20-7 and had appeared competent defensively against the Yellow Jackets’ spread-option offense, which often makes defenses appear inept.

After Switzer’s touchdown came back, though, nothing went right for the Tar Heels. They gained just 53 yards on 17 plays the rest of the game, and their offensive inefficiency couldn’t have helped the UNC defense, which seemed to tire while Georgia Tech seized control and maintained it with time-consuming drive after time-consuming drive.

Fedora said he hoped the called-back touchdown didn’t affect his team mentally. Yet he didn’t dismiss the thought that it might have.

“We talk about adversity all the time, and you’ve got it right there, and you’ve just got to put it behind you and you’ve got to move on,” he said. “If it is affecting us mentally, then we’re doing a poor job of dealing with the adversity.”

On Georgia Tech’s next possession after the momentum-swinging holding call on Heck, the Yellow Jackets (3-0, 2-0) took the lead for good on a 1-yard touchdown run from Vad Lee, the sophomore quarterback and former standout at Hillside High in Durham. Lee’s score gave his team a 21-20 lead, and UNC’s next drive lasted just four plays before a punt.

By then, the Tar Heels’ fast start was but a distant memory. UNC scored touchdowns on its first and third drives, and it held Georgia Tech to a modest 48 yards rushing during the first quarter. Early on, at least, it was a redemptive performance for the Tar Heels defense, which suffered the most amid that 68-50 loss against the Yellow Jackets last season.

“We had two or three tests throughout the week to make sure that we knew (assignments),” Kareem Martin, UNC’s senior defensive end, said. “Who had the pitch, who had the quarterback, who had the dive. So the coaches made sure that we prepared.”

It showed for a while, even when cracks began to appear in the second quarter. In the second half, though, the Yellow Jackets mostly did what they pleased on offense. They maintained possession for about 22 minutes during the second half – including the final six minutes, 27 seconds.

After forcing the UNC punt that followed Lee’s go-ahead touchdown run, Georgia Tech put together its best drive of the game. It lasted 92 yards and 11 plays, and it ended after nearly six minutes with David Sims’ 6-yard touchdown run, which gave the Yellow Jackets a 28-20 lead.

Moments before Sims’ touchdown, his second of the game, UNC forced Lee to fumble. The Tar Heels recovered near their own 12 yard line, but officials reviewed the play and overturned it and Sims soon scored.

It was the second critical replay review that went against the Tar Heels, who nearly forced a fumble on Sims’ first touchdown run. Instead, a review confirmed that Sims broke the plane of the goal line before the fumble.

“Every single one of those things were close, evidently, and every one of them went their way,” Fedora said.

That was a theme for the Tar Heels on Saturday. They were close. Close to forcing and recovering game-changing fumbles. Close to taking a commanding lead in the third quarter on an 82-yard touchdown pass. They were close to winning in Atlanta for the first time since 1997, yet their misery here continued.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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