There’s no denying that UNC has been bitten hard by the injury bug this year, but the season continues. This week, the team travels to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech, a team that also needed to replace more production than anticipated after the dismissal of Dedrick Mills. Based on last week’s 35-17 thrashing of Pittsburgh (who, granted, has looked awful this season), they might have done okay. UNC will try and test them a little more, and in doing so, put their past struggles behind them. The contest will take place at 12:00 PM on ESPN2:
Simply put, injuries are the worst. They’re inevitable in football given the nature of the sport, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t absolutely horrible. This year was already going to be a rougher one than UNC football has been accustomed to, and now it’s been compounded with some of the worst injury luck I’ve ever seen a college team have.
I’m not blaming injuries for UNC’s poor start to the season, mind you. There are a lot of factors for that, and we’ve explored many of them throughout the season. Only a few of those are related to injury. However, when Austin Proehl misses out on finishing his senior season the year his dad stopped coaching so he could watch him more, or when Carl Tucker’s season comes to an end right when he’s started to find his role, or when William Sweet goes from shining in his first college action to watching on the sidelines, you’ve got to feel for the players and the team.
It's game week!— Carolina Football (@TarHeelFootball) September 26, 2017
Saturday, September 30
ESPN2#GoHeels #BeatGT pic.twitter.com/9gB7xBjhpX
If there’s one thing UNC has going for it in this matchup, it’s recent history. The Tar Heels have won their last three matchups with the Yellow Jackets, including the 2015 game in Atlanta. The defense seemed to have at least kind of figured out how to defend the triple option by last year, resulting in a 48-20 blowout, but without middle linebacker Andre Smith leading the way as he did then, that might be a tall order.
The good news is that the UNC defense has looked like at least a semblance of the unit that was anticipated before the season started, holding a solid Duke squad to just 20 points. They’ll need to keep up the discipline that allowed this against the well-known Georgia Tech triple option, which looks in fine form based on the two games they’ve had against Power 5 competition. UNC’s familiarity will help, but they will need to look even better than they have so far to have a chance at winning. This offense doesn’t exactly look capable of scoring 48 points again.
Speaking of the offense, quarterback Chazz Surratt had by far the worst game of his career against Duke, likely due to a combination of pressure unnerving him and gaining confidence in his legs after a long touchdown run. He’s a freshman and bumps are expected, but he needs to learn from them.
His biggest takeaway from this game should be that he cannot out-athlete opposing defenses; the time is past for hero-ball. He cannot run through defensive lines, throw while getting sacked, or spin away from sacks. He can stiff-arm defenders into the ground, though. He can keep that.
His response to the near-disaster against Duke will be telling about the kind of quarterback UNC will have on its hands for the next several years. His depleted receiving corps will have to step up to help him out, since it has been announced that Austin Proehl, Thomas Jackson, and Rontavious Groves, as well as tight end Carl Tucker, will all miss the rest of the season.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams will likely become the primary target, having made a handful of splash plays already. Players such as Brandon Fritts, Jake Bargas, Dazz Newsome, and Jordan Cunningham will be looked on to replace the lost receivers’ production.
Fortunately, UNC’s running backs remain untouched by injury since the season began. Jordan Brown will try to continue his hot streak, while Michael Carter will look to regain his form. I will say, though it has been frustrating to see Carter lose touches the last few games, it is refreshing to see Fedora and his staff stick with the hot hand at running back. The ground game is going to be vital this year, and it seems that it’s being managed better than in seasons past. Now if they could just use their tight ends...
The Yellow Jackets received a shock when B-Back and presumptive All-ACC player Dedrick Mills was dismissed from the program, and questions abounded as to how he could be replaced. Then, Georgia Tech realized that in their scheme, running is just as much about blocking bodies as individual talent, and Mills’ replacement KirVonte Benson rushed for 196 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh.
New quarterback TaQuon Marshall has been steady as well, giving them 5.1 yards per rush, eight touchdowns through three games, and completing 14/23 of his passes this season for 280 yards. The UNC secondary will be tested deep occasionally, and it will be imperative not to let Ricky Jeune (the only Yellow Jacket with more than two catches this season) get behind them.
On defense, the Georgia Tech front has been aggressive, notching eight sacks through three games. They haven’t created many turnovers, collecting just two, but they have limited yardage: opponents have gained just 264 yards per game against them.
The somewhat good news is that Tennessee managed to score 42 points against them despite gaining “just” 369 yards (Georgia Tech gained 655 in that game). That game went to two overtimes, but it still indicative that Georgia Tech can be scored on by taking advantage of short fields when they’re available, and this can be somewhat exploited by UNC having one of the best punt/punt coverage units in the country.
Georgia Tech’s special teams, on the other hand, looks somewhat shaky. First-year kicker Shawn Davis has only made one of his three field goal attempts, and punter Pressley Harvin is averaging 44 yards per punt, which is decent. The return game seems mostly harmless.
UNC is understandably a notable underdog in this game. I, however, will continue to pick them.
Score Prediction: UNC 32, GT 28