A lot can change in a year.
In 2012, the North Carolina Tar Heels fell short against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in an offensive slugfest. The ACC opponents combined to accumulate 1,085 yards, 16 touchdowns, and an astounding 118 points – most in conference history.
The majority of this scoring was surprisingly found in the running game of both teams. With a score line of 68-50, however, it is not hard to believe that the high-scoring game is chalked up to the fact that there were two nonexistent defenses rather than two high-powered rushing attacks.
One year later, the two teams came together again, and North Carolina began the game as hot and explosive as they were the previous year. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, needed to warm back up.
The Heels jumped out to a 13-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, and looked like they could easily run away with the game. Without their offensive playmaker from the year before, Giovanni Bernard, eventual first-round draft pick Eric Ebron emerged as the Tar Heels’ most valuable offensive weapon. Ebron finished with 6 receptions, 108 yards, and one touchdown – his one touchdown coming in the last minute of the first quarter with one hand.
On top of their terrific offensive start, North Carolina’s defense was effective early as well, forcing Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack into two punting situations in their first seven plays, and even recovering a fumble in the first half. In short, the Heels were rolling.
However, just as it seemed North Carolina would take over the game, the Yellow Jackets engineered two drives for touchdowns at the end of the first half, led by their quarterback, Vad Lee. “There is no question who the leader of this Georgia Tech team is,” Brian Griese commented while calling the game. “His energy could spark this crowd and spark this team.” Lee finished with a total of 159 yards and 2 touchdowns rushing and passing. Despite his seemingly unimpressive stats, Lee rallied his team when they had a slow start, and maintained his composure throughout the entire game.
The game was ultimately decided in the third quarter. With eleven minutes remaining, Bryn Renner orchestrated an 82 yard passing touchdown that was called back due to a holding penalty. The penalty led to a North Carolina punt, and ultimately led to a goal line punch in from quarterback Vad Lee. This 14 point swing proved to be just what the Yellow Jackets needed as they held onto the lead for the rest of the game. The Tar Heels fell to the Yellow Jackets 20-28.
Although Ebron was effective early, Bernard’s absence was felt. The Tar Heels ended up only running the ball 24 times against their previous year’s 34 times and ended with 46 less rushing yards than they had in 2012. The Heels’ inability to sustain drives on the ground led to less first downs and less time of possession, and against a triple-option attack that thrives when they eat up the clock, opportunities were limited. On top of that, a big play was spoiled by an ill-timed penalty and one of their few chances was wasted. North Carolina was simply demoralized.
The Heels have changed significantly since last year’s meeting. They lost their offensive centerpiece in Eric Ebron. They also lost safety Tre Boston, easily their defense’s most valuable player. But now the Heels have a dynamic, athletic quarterback in Marquise Williams, no longer sharing quarterback responsibilities with Bryn Renner, to offset the Yellow Jacket ground game.
It is clear that a sustainable rushing game is necessary in order to take down Georgia Tech in 2014. With an offense that is at its best when it milks the clock and prevents the opposing offense from getting into a rhythm, look for QB Marquise Williams to make a significant impact on the ground.
With many of Georgia Tech’s offensive pieces returning, along with the fact that it is uncertain who will emerge as North Carolina’s offensive playmaker, there is no telling how the game will develop.
The Tar Heels’ only consistency against Georgia Tech these past two seasons have been in their inability to produce in the second half.
Change may be just what the doctor ordered.