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Turner's Take: Stung

Turner's Take: Stung

By Turner Walston

Another year in Atlanta, another loss for the Tar Heels. It’s been the same result since 1997, the last time Carolina beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium. After leading 20-7 late in the first half, the Tar Heels allowed 21 straight Georgia Tech points and took a costly loss in the Coastal Division.

Georgia Tech is good enough at what they do that they don’t need you to make your own mistakes. But if you do, they’ll make you pay. The Yellow Jackets got their triple-option game running on all cylinders midway through the second quarter, and the Tar Heels couldn’t get out of their own way.

Saturday afternoon in Atlanta was miserable. Whether it was drizzling or a downpour, but it rained the entire game. Still, the Tar Heels got off to a promising start, marching down the field for a Romar Morris touchdown on their first possession of the game. Carolina forced a three-and-out from the Yellow Jacket offense, and all seemed to be working well.

Before any team plays Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets, the pregame talk from players and coaches is going to be about assignment football, maintaining discipline and not ‘cheating’ by leaving your man for the ball, lest a pitch make you look foolish. As Rick Steinbacher said on the Tar Heel Sports Network radio broadcast, that makes it very difficult to gang-tackle the Jackets, as it essentially forces a team to play defense one-on-one. The Tar Heels played those assignments perfectly in the early going, wrapping up the Yellow Jackets and seizing momentum early.

But Georgia Tech stuck with their game plan and stayed patient. They scored a late touchdown to close within 20-14 at halftime, and then found a way to dictate the game’s tempo in the second half. Carolina went three-and-out on their only two possessions of the third quarter, possessing the ball for just three minutes and 24 seconds. Against a team like Georgia Tech, the defense has to make plays to get off the field, yes, but the offense has to move the ball when it gets the opportunity. A Jon Heck holding call early in the third was killer, as it erased an 82-yard touchdown pass from Bryn Renner to Ryan Switzer. 

The Tar Heels wasted good field position on their only other third-quarter possession, stalling at midfield. “It’s frustrating not scoring points, because our defense played their tails off and we just couldn’t convert and score touchdowns in the second half,” Renner said. “We didn’t convert on third downs in critical situations.”

Ultimately, Saturday’s was a game of two halves. Paul Johnson’s team took the lead for good midway through the third quarter, and from there Georgia Tech was able to control the clock. Perhaps the biggest Tar Heel backbreaker came on the opening play of the fourth quarter, when the Jackets got Travis Hughes to jump offside on a 4th and 1. A Tech touchdown four plays later to provide the final 28-20 margin.

On Sunday, the Tar Heels will watch the film from Saturday’s loss and then put it behind them. They won’t face another triple-option team (in the regular season, at least), and can look forward to playing against more traditional offenses. There are positives to take from Saturday, as well. Eric Ebron emerged with his best game of the season so far, showing how valuable a weapon he can be over the middle of the field.

It’s troubling, however, that Carolina has yet to find consistency in the running game four weeks into the season. The offensive line has played three games together and can no longer use the excuse that they’re new to the job. Romar Morris and A.J. Blue got reps in 2012 and are capable to carry the load, and even Khris Francis has shown promise, but the ground game has not crystalized in a way that can take pressure off Bryn Renner and the pass. “It’s a combination of things,” Fedora said. “It starts up front with your offensive line and your running backs. That’s where it is, and blocking on the perimeter and doing all the little things, and we’re not doing those things successfully.”

The nature of college football, for better or worse, dictates that a single game in mid-September could have ramifications come early December and conference title game time. With Saturday’s result, Georgia Tech will now own any two-team tiebreak should the Coastal Division race come down to these two teams.

Last season, it was a three-way tie between the Tar Heels, Georgia Tech and Miami. Carolina would have advanced had they been postseason eligible. But this is 2013, and Larry Fedora’s team dreams of a recognized Coastal Division championship. 

It’s just one conference game, and the Tar Heels have seven more to put this result behind them. Still, the Yellow Jackets are always in the hunt for a division crown, and today, this one stings.

Follow Turner Walston on Twitter.