Since Mack Brown left UNC after the 1997 season, North Carolina was just 1-9 at Georgia Tech. Needless to say, the Heels were desperate to reverse that trend. They were successful on Saturday, and in the process Mack Brown tied Dick Crum as the winningest coach in UNC history with 72. North Carolina emerged with a 38-22 victory that was simultaneously dominating and infuriating.
The road match-up against the hapless Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets was exactly what the Heels needed, though it wasn’t always impressive. On their first drive, Dazz Newsome dropped a perfect 44-yard bomb by Howell in the end zone. Two plays later, Sam Howell threw his third interception of the year. UNC defensive back Greg Ross was then beaten on a double move on Georgia Tech’s ensuing possession, but a poorly thrown pass by QB James Graham ensured the game remained tied 0-0. Fears of a post-Clemson hangover appeared to be validated.
UNC got the ball back, but a 15-play 65-yard drive stalled in the red zone. Wide receiver drops continued to be a problem, only this time it was Dyami Brown letting a ball slip through his hands down the sideline. Sophomore kicker Noah Ruggles at least salvaged some points, putting UNC up 3-0.
Fortunately, Georgia Tech’s offense continued their season-long struggle and UNC’s defense continued to put the rest of the ACC on notice. A few short Yellow Jacket drives stalled out, and an interception by true freshman safety Don Chapman kept giving UNC chances to find an offensive rhythm. The offense finally responded.
Howell led two touchdown drives to close out the half, finally connecting with Newsome and Beau Corrales. The Heels led 17-0 at the half, thanks to 96 rushing yards from Howell, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams and 198 passing yards distributed to eight different receivers. They ended the first half with 40 plays to Tech’s 22, possessed the ball for 16:52 and converted 8-12 of their third down attempts.
The second half saw the Heels revert to their early-game struggles. After a quick Tech three-and-out, aided by an Aaron Crawford sack, Howell led UNC back into the red zone. The Heels looked primed to score on their third straight drive, but a personal foul by OL Charlie Heck killed those chances. That penalty pushed UNC outside of the red zone, and Ruggles pushed the field goal attempt to the right. It was UNC’s first trip to red zone this season that didn’t result in any points.
Right on cue, Georgia Tech responded with a scoring drive of their own. A 43-yard run by Jordan Mason put Tech inside the UNC 30-yard line. They scored three plays later, converting a 3rd and 11 into a touchdown pass from James Graham to Malachi Carter, cutting the lead to 17-7.
The two teams went back and forth until resuming their touchdown party in the fourth quarter. To save time, here is the final period in bullet format.
- Dyami Brown’s fourth touchdown of the year capped a 13-play, 59-yard drive that ate up 5:02 of playing time. It was Howell’s third TD of the day, giving Carolina a 24-7 lead.
- Georgia Tech scored on the next possession, cutting the lead to 24-15 after converting the two-point conversion.
- North Carolina returned the favor with Howell’s fourth touchdown pass of the day, this time to tight end Garret Walston.
- Georgia Tech punts
- Javonte Williams capped a 10-play, 72-yard drive to push the UNC lead to 38-15 with just 3:24 remaining.
- Georgia Tech answered with a 32-yard touchdown pass from Graham to Ahmarean Brown. UNC held a 38-22 lead.
- UNC punts with under a minute to go
- Georgia Tech’s final pass is intercepted by DJ Ford.
It wasn’t pretty. Dropped passes, overthrows, a fumbled snap, and penalties (6-60) prevented North Carolina from putting this game away in the first, second, and third quarters. They eventually wore down the Yellow Jackets and finally pulled away late. Converting 11 of 19 third down attempts didn’t hurt. Howell finished 33-51 for 376 yards and 4 touchdowns. Javonte Williams led the team in rushing with 144 yards on 20 carries. Dazz Newsome led receivers with 8 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, the defense continued to hassle opponents, though it wasn’t their most inspiring performance. The severely depleted Tar Heel secondary held Tech to 171 passing yards but gave up two touchdowns to go with two interceptions. The Yellow Jackets also managed 150 yards on the ground. The trio of Aaron Crawford, Jason Strowbridge, and Tomon Fox consistently pushed behind the line and combined for 10 tackles, 4 TFL, and 2 sacks. Chazz Surratt continued his storybook season, leading the team with 12 tackles.
North Carolina will now get a much needed bye week to regroup and rest. The win pushed UNC’s overall record to 3-3 and 2-1 in the ACC. They’ll look to continue their dark horse bid to challenge for the Coastal at Virginia Tech in two weeks.