By the end of North Carolina’s 48-20 victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday, the Tar Heels’ reserves were in the game, a Homecoming crowd was celebrating a result long decided and Elijah Hood was somewhere on the sideline, feeling as good as he had in a while.
Hood, the Tar Heels’ junior running back, had said earlier in the week that he felt as healthy as he had all season. Nagging injuries were in the past, as was the concussion he endured at Florida State. He felt like himself again, and then proved it on Saturday.
That was perhaps the story of UNC’s victory.
But it wasn’t the only takeaway. As we’re wont to do around here on the day after games, a look back at the good, the ugly and everything in between from UNC’s performance on Saturday:
Elijah Hood returned to form.
We’ve covered this, both briefly above and in the story after the game but it bears repeating: Hood’s performance was UNC’s greatest victory within the victory against Georgia Tech.
The numbers: a season-high 168 rushing yards, three touchdowns and a 14 yards-per-carry average. Saturday was the fourth time during his time at UNC that Hood finished a game with a per-carry average in double figures. All of those times, he had at least eight carries.
The other three all happened last season: 13 carries for 138 yards (10.62 per carry) against South Carolina; eight carries for 101 yards (12.63 per carry) against Wake Forest; and 21 carries for 220 yards (10.48 per carry) against N.C. State.
So on a per-carry basis, Hood was more productive on Saturday than he’d ever been. His return to health helps the Tar Heels in ways obvious and subtle. It clearly affects the way coach Larry Fedora and his staff call a game. Let Fedora explain:
“Now you get into some third-and-mediums that you know you can still run it, third-and-3s and things, so your tendencies are not all passing when we go to third-and-medium. Which helps us. Because to be able to be over 50 percent on third downs, we’re going to have to be able to run the ball some and be effective that way. It also enables you to be in less third-and-longs, because you’re more effective running the football (on) first, second downs.”
The Tar Heels offense played its best game.
That’s something of a bold statement given UNC’s success against Pittsburgh and Florida State earlier this season, but the numbers clearly support the assertion that this was UNC’s best offensive game of the season.
The Tar Heels on Saturday finished with 636 yards. That’s a season high, and it’s the seventh-highest total in school history. They also averaged 9.09 yards per play, which was their second-highest per-play output in an ACC game under Fedora. (The highest was 9.12 yards per play against Wake Forest last season).
Saturday was also the first time since the Wake Forest game a season ago that UNC finished with at least 200 yards rushing and 300 yards passing. And Saturday was also the 10th time in school history that UNC had a 300-yard passer (Mitch Trubisky), 100-yard rusher (Hood) and 100-yard receiver (Bug Howard, who finished with 120 yards on six receptions).
And so not only was this UNC’s best offensive game of the season – it was also one of the best under Fedora, which makes it one of the best in school history.
The defense came up with key stops.
It was somewhat lost on Saturday amid the historically-good offensive performance, but the defense helped swing the game with two important stops, both resulting in turnovers on fumbles, late in the third quarter and at the start of the fourth.
Georgia Tech still had success of its own on offense (more on that in a minute), but the Tar Heels did an excellent job of keeping the Yellow Jackets out of the end zone. Especially in the second half. Georgia Tech scored but three points after halftime. Meanwhile, the UNC offense continued its onslaught.
THE NOT-SO GOOD
The defense did give up 518 yards.
Georgia Tech’s triple option has a way of making defenses look silly, and the Tar Heels did at times on Saturday. There was the 83-yard touchdown UNC allowed late in the first quarter, when cornerback M.J. Stewart tried to strip the ball out of Clinton Lynch’s grasp and … missed. Badly. (More on that in a minute.) And, Georgia Tech gained 334 yards rushing.
Some context is needed, though, and so here it is: Georgia Tech’s 518 yards on Saturday were its second-most against an ACC team (605 against Duke), and the 334 yards rushing were also the Yellow Jackets’ second-most against an ACC team (341 against Duke). And so the Yellow Jackets certainly bent the Tar Heels’ defense, or dented it. But they didn’t break it.
Stewart’s ill-fated attempt to stop Clinton Lynch from scoring.
Stewart can’t be looking forward to the film review session that will show what was perhaps UNC’s most glaring mistake on Saturday. Late in the first quarter, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas completed a pass to Lynch, who was open down the sideline.
Stewart sprinted in pursuit, caught up to Lynch and attempted to knock the ball away. Instead, Stewart sort of bounced off of Lynch, who continued on to the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown. It wasn’t exactly a textbook example of tackling technique.
Lynch’s touchdown represented the Yellow Jackets’ longest passing play. Thomas completed five passes for 183 yards – 36.6 yards per completion.
THE LOOK AHEAD
It’s a short week now for UNC. The Tar Heels on Thursday night play at Duke, where UNC will attempt to keep pace with Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division race. The Tar Heels and Hokies are tied atop the divisional standings, but Virginia Tech has the tiebreaker. And so UNC needs help. Time is running out for that, though. Virginia Tech’s final two ACC games, both at home, are against Georgia Tech and Virginia.