UNC vs. Georgia Tech: Ask a writer who covers the Yellow Jackets

UNC coach Larry Fedora and the Tar Heels are seeking their third consecutive victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday.
UNC coach Larry Fedora and the Tar Heels are seeking their third consecutive victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

They are autumnal traditions, year after year: The changing of the leaves. The resumption of a college football team’s season after an off weekend. The return of the wildly popular “ask a writer who covers North Carolina’s opponent” series.

UNC resumes the season on Saturday against Georgia Tech at Kenan Stadium. And to celebrate the occasion we just so happen to be back with the latest installment in our “ask a writer” series. This week that writer is Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Let the discussion commence:

Andrew Carter: Georgia Tech has won seven games or fewer in four of Paul Johnson’s eight seasons, and the Yellow Jackets could be headed toward another one of those middling finishes this year. What’s the level of satisfaction among the Tech faithful right now with Johnson after a stumble to a 3-9 finish last year?

Ken Sugiura: That’s a timely question. As you might guess, he can be a polarizing figure. I think some fans are over him, because of the 3-9 record followed by less-than-overwhelming play thus far (the three defeats were a bad loss to Clemson, a loss to Miami that turned on back-to-back fumbles returned for touchdowns, a loss to Pitt in which, in a tie game in their own end with about two minutes remaining, the Jackets went for it on 4th-and-1 and were stuffed). They don’t like the offense and find him abrasive, and think Tech can recruit better with a more conventional offense. There’s also not a lot of excitement for defensive coordinator Ted Roof, whose defense is dead last in FBS in third-down conversion rate.

However, there’s plenty of fans who believe he is the right coach for Tech, that he understands the school, appreciates the type of kids who come to Tech (it often self-selects by requiring two math classes, including calculus) and who believe that his offense is an equalizer for a team that probably will never bring in elite recruiting classes.

Some see the 3-9 record and have the feeling that Tech is falling behind because of him. Others see three ACC title-game appearances, one ACC title and two Orange Bowl appearances and think he’s the best hope Tech has to stay competitive. I’d be guessing to say how large each camp is, but I don’t think it’s 90/10 one way or the other.

AC: What’s the greatest difference between Johnson’s best teams, those that have won 11 games, and the ones that struggle to get to .500 or better?

KS: The 2009 team was loaded, starting with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and defensive end Derrick Morgan, the former of whom you know about and the latter of whom was a first-round pick and the ACC defensive player of the year. It had difference makers at a lot of positions. The 2014 team had a lot of experience on offense and two game-changers in particular in Justin Thomas at quarterback and wide receiver DeAndre Smelter. The defense was very hit and miss; it rode a turnover streak the final seven games of the season (following that nutty 48-43 defeat to the Tar Heels).

His weakest teams have lacked difference-making players and compounded it with mistakes. The 3-9 team last year lost a lot of the offense in 2014, then got killed with injuries and lost more fumbles than all but one FBS team. The 2010 team, which finished 6-7, lost quarterback Josh Nesbitt midway through the season, lost four players to early entry (including the aforementioned Demaryius Thomas and Derrick Morgan) and was also second-to-last in fumbles.

Because of Tech’s low-possession pace, the Jackets rarely get blown out, but it also requires them to be efficient on offense because there aren’t many chances to score. I think an identity of this team is its slogging 15-play drives, but you’ve got be pretty good at what you’re doing to make those happen, which is why you need either a playmaker like Justin Thomas (or Demaryius Thomas) who can make plays either score on 50-yard plays or make plays that erase mistakes by teammates to keep drives going.

AC: Is it just me or are the Yellow Jackets just a smidge more reliant on the passing game this year? If so, why’s that?

KS: I’m glad you asked, because it made me look at the numbers a little more closely. In the past three games – three of the best games of Justin Thomas’ career – the Jackets’ run-pass ratio has been right around 20/80 ratio it typically is. However, the passing game has provided 40 percent of the offense’s total yardage, which is really high. So Georgia Tech isn’t calling more pass plays, but just getting more out of them when they do.

I think there’s two primary factors at play, neither of which should be terribly surprising. The pass protection has been much better (you may be interested to know that Johnson added a second offensive line coach, former UNC co-defensive coordinator Ron West) and that has allowed Thomas to be a lot more comfortable in the pocket. I know he’s seen as an option quarterback, but he’s actually a pretty decent passer. Don’t let the completion percentage (55.2 percent) fool you, as he takes a lot of downfield shots. He throws a lot of jump balls, and he has two receivers in Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart who are both pretty good at winning them.

AC: We talked about what UNC’s comeback in Atlanta last year did for the Tar Heels. What were the lasting effects of that game for the Yellow Jackets?

KS: He didn’t talk about it this week, but Paul Johnson has made mention previously of the impact that it had, that it was a turning point game for both teams. At that point, Georgia Tech was 3-2 and had lost two in a row to Notre Dame and Duke, pretty much stripping away all of the excitement that fans had for 2015 after such a stunner in 2014. Tech went up 21-0 and you guys know the rest. It was the biggest lead given up in a loss in Tech history. (Worth noting: Tech gave up all of a 28-7 halftime lead to Duke to match the North Carolina loss, but came back to win it in the fourth quarter.)

Tech won just one more game the rest of the year. That game was kind of emblematic of Tech’s season. Bad breaks (Tech’s best defensive player, tackle Adam Gotsis was tossed for targeting Marquise Williams on a play that was a penalty by the letter of the rule, but Johnson and others disputed whether it was in the spirit of the rule), injury-depleted lineups (I think two true freshmen had their redshirts taken off that game, the sixth of the season) and just finding a way to lose. That happened a lot in 2015. It was almost like all the breaks that had gone the Jackets’ way in 2014 completely flipped.

AC: Georgia Tech hasn’t been an especially great defensive team. Is the Yellow Jackets best hope to prevail in one of those kind of high scoring games that defined this series for a while or do the Yellow Jackets believe they can slow down UNC’s offense?

KS: I think Tech’s best hope is to slow the game down. I bet they’d be quite happy with a 10-possession game. It’s a pace they’re quite comfortable with, but obviously not one that UNC likes to play. In that setting, the hope would be that the offense plays efficiently, doesn’t turn the ball over and at least flips the field if it’s not scoring.

Defensively, Tech has largely been able to at least prevent big plays, but I think there’s reasonable concern that UNC’s pace will be problematic. Against Duke last week, Johnson was furious about defensive alignment problems caused by calls that were getting changed during the pre-snap sequence that weren’t getting communicated effectively. He said that the defenses and calls need to be simpler and that they just need to make one call and stick with it. That’s not the kind of problem you want to try to fix, obviously, against North Carolina.

I think what you might see is defensive coordinator Roof taking some risks with some heavy blitz pressure – like bringing seven defenders – in hopes of forcing third-down stops or turnovers. If they can get enough of those – even if the cost is a few big plays the other way – I think that’d probably be a result favorable for Tech.

So there you have it. Great stuff, as usual, from Ken. We’ll see you at Kenan Stadium.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

Georgia Tech at UNC

When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill

TV: ACC Network