Oct. 19, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Paul Johnson has on several occasions this season referred to not wanting to “miss your turn,” in games, and on Saturday night at North Carolina it was clear what he’s been talking about.
Georgia Tech fell 48-43 to the Tar Heels after UNC cashed in on what amounted to the final “turn” of the game. When T.J. Logan scored on a 2-yard run with 11 seconds left, that left the Yellow Jackets without another legitimate shot when they needed one the most.
Tech ran two more plays from scrimmage, but upon setting up 66 yards away from the end zone the Jackets faced the longest of odds and Justin Thomas’ final two passes, both of the desperation variety, fell incomplete.
Offense and scoring are up in college football, defense is down, and Tech has kept pace with those trends. There has been disproportion on the defensive side of that equation.
The Jackets rushed for 376 yards in Chapel Hill and totaled 611 yards of offense – sixth-most in program history.
Yet Tech lost because of a couple missed turns, a near bonus turn that was missed when the Jackets almost recovered an onsides kick, their inability to interrupt UNC’s turns, and because, again, the Heels cashed the game’s last real turn.
Also, a Tech turn was short-circuited when a penalty thwarted a fourth-down try near UNC’s goal line. Given that each team scored seven times, and all seven UNC scores were touchdowns, Tech’s six TDs and a field goal didn’t add up (and prompted Johnson to go for two fourth-quarter two-pointers, which both failed).
More than anything, the Jackets lost because they had almost no answers for UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, who might be in Heisman Trophy conversations if he didn’t play for a team with so little defense and a 3-4 record.
Williams completed a school-record 38 passes (in 47 attempts) for 390 yards and four touchdowns with 73 rushing yards and a TD. He connected on a school-record 23 passes in the second half.
His 463 yards of total offense were second-most ever against Tech, and the biggest reason the Jackets went into their own record book in a dubious category. Their 43 points were Tech’s second-most in a loss (47-44 against Clemson, in overtime, in 2001).
The Jackets have eight sacks this season, and only one came against Williams, who spent a lot of time in a position to be sacked – attempting to pass.
“We never really got any pressure on the guy,” Johnson said. “And never kept him from running, either.”
This game did not keep pace points-wise with Tech’s 68-50 win at North Carolina two years ago, but only because possessions were lasting longer. Both teams were more deliberate in moving downfield, if incrementally so.
It was nonetheless unfolding in video game-style, as Tech scored on seven of eight possessions following a lost fumble on its opening drive, and the Heels scored on seven of nine possessions after the Jackets forced an opening punt and intercepted Williams on UNC’s second drive.
So, after Tech drew within 35-31 on Thomas’ 46-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Smelter on the first play of the fourth quarter, Johnson’s attempt to steal another turn nearly worked. Kicker Harrison Butker almost recovered his kick.
It did not take a football genius to see what Johnson was trying to do: steal one back in a game where the Jackets were being plundered as the Heels were on their way to 579 yards and a season-high 31 first downs.
“We had a chance to get the onside kick,” Johnson said. “We practiced that and it was actually pretty good . . . we just didn’t make the play.” for that, Tech paid.
North Carolina drove 52 yards in seven plays, Williams accounting for all but 2 of those yards either by pass or run, and the Tar Heels moved up 42-31 with 12:34 left in the game.
That drive encompassed and highlighted much.
In just seven plays, the Heels faced two third downs and a fourth down as well. They converted the first third, when Williams ran 4 yards with 2-to-go, and after the Jackets registered their only sack moments later on third-and-5 at Tech’s 35-yard-line, UNC coach Larry Fedora went for it on fourth-and-6.
There, Williams connected with Mack Hollins for a 36-yard score.
Cornerback D.J. White was nearly in position to make a play on the ball, but a soft pass rush necessitated that he be in position for a long time.
It didn’t quite happen.
“We had chances to get off the field defensive, we had chances to make plays,” Johnson said. “Like their last touchdown, not the last one but the one before, we got them on third-and-. They made a nice play, but we can’t make a play.
“When we were blitzing, we would get to the quarterback late.”
It does not qualify as a surprise that the Jackets struggle on defense. They lost six 2013 starters to NFL training camps, and there were additional offseason losses to academic and disciplinary issues.
The line, in particular, suffered unexpected losses.
There is no pure pass rusher, nobody remotely like Jeremiah Attaouchu. His projected replacement, Jabari Hunt-Days, is on the academic shelf, and another transfer player whom many felt might slide into that spot was found shortly after arriving on campus last summer to be academically short as well.
Tech is young and inexperienced at the end spots, light in depth in the middle, and generally light on the scale across the defensive line.
That pressures the rest of the defense.
Tech is less stout, and less experienced on defense than in years.
North Carolina converted 10-of-15 third downs into firsts or touchdowns, and was good on both fourth down tries. In essence, that becomes 12-for-15. Every coach will take an 80 percent third/fourth down conversion rate.
That’s a brutal ratio to overcome, but the Jackets sure tried.
They scored touchdowns on their next two possessions on runs of 14 and 75 yards by Zack Laskey and DeAndre Smelter, and the defense stalled the Heels in between the two.
Smelter’s dazzling reverse run left the Jackets ahead 43-42 (Tech failed on consecutive two-point tries to fall to 0-for-4 this season), but there was too much time on the clock – 3:07.
That was a non-issue for the Heels, who typically operate expeditiously. North Carolina would have one more – full – turn, and they ran plays 77-88 as if it were the first quarter not the fourth.
Williams locked in, and locked on – again – and the Heels went about their business not like a team that entered the game 2-4, but like a squad that believed in itself one week after a 50-43 loss at No. 6 Notre Dame in which the Heels frequently looked like the better team offensively.
The Heels drove 75 yards in 12 plays and 2:56, converting three more third downs, and Williams pitched in 14 yards on three rushes while completing 7-of-8 passes for 54 more yards. Tech helped with 7 penalty yards.
Williams’ 463 yards of total offense were second-most in UNC history, trailing only his 469, and second-most ever against Tech (Wake Forest’s Rusty Larue had 514 in 1995).
“I said as [Williams] was going out, ‘3:07, three minutes.’ He said, ‘We do this every week. It’s no big deal,’ and he’s right,” recalled UNC head coach Larry Fedora. “He’s comfortable with it.
“If you look at our guys in a two-minute situation, they’re not helter-skelter because we go at that pace all the time, so it’s very calm for them actually.”
Always in a narrow loss, there will be looks back and a play here and a play there. Tech called timeout early in the second quarter when facing fourth-and-1 at the UNC 5. The Jackets would line up to go for it, but after a false start, they re-trenched and took a 27-yard field goal.
Had they instead scored a touchdown there, might the rest of the game played out differently?
It’s impossible to know, easy to wonder.
Tech’s offense was so efficient that the Jackets faced only eight third downs. They converted five. The Jackets averaged 8.9 yards per play. Thomas completed passes of 55, 47, 46, 33 and 25 yards in just 18 attempts. He threw three touchdown passes. The Jackets averaged 7.4 yards on 51 rushes.
This much is clear, though: to re-enter the fray in the ACC’s Coastal division, where the Jackets (5-2, 2-2) need help from others as there are many, many games to be played, Tech needs to be better at making the other guys miss turns.