ATLANTA — From the beginning of North Carolinas 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, UNCs 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.
Weve run (that play) through the course of the first three (games), Renner said. But havent 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, UNCs 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-wasnt, 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 Switzers 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 couldnt 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 didnt affect his team mentally. Yet he didnt dismiss the thought that it might have.
We talk about adversity all the time, and youve got it right there, and youve just got to put it behind you and youve got to move on, he said. If it is affecting us mentally, then were doing a poor job of dealing with the adversity.
On Georgia Techs 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. Lees score gave his team a 21-20 lead, and UNCs 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, UNCs 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 Lees 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