ATLANTA -- If fans are looking for a game with contrasting styles, they need to look no further than Saturday’s game between Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
Simply put, there just aren’t many similarities between the Yellow Jackets and Tar Heels.
When the two teams meet in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Georgia Tech will trot out its control-the-ball offense and hope to own possession of the ball for at least 40 minutes of the game. Conversely, North Carolina will try to play at the barefoot-on-hot-pavement pace that allows it to run 82 plays per game.
So who will prevail, the tortoise or the hare?
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“We don’t necessarily try to keep up with the other team. We’re just trying to score,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “With the nature of what we do, we’re not going at breakneck speed. It’s just a different way to play.”
The different styles have produce different results. Georgia Tech is 5-1, coming off its first loss of the season, while North Carolina is 2-4, fresh off a 50-43 road loss at Notre Dame.
“For me it’s the same as any Paul Johnson-coached team,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “They’re going to be very disciplined. They’re going to run the ball extremely well. When you least expect it, they’re going to beat you with the pass. That’s what his offense does.”
Georgia Tech averages 68 plays per game. It is getting 294.7 yards rushing and 144 yards passing. North Carolina has not run fewer than 74 plays in a game this season. The Tar Heels had 97 plays against East Carolina. They average 148 yards rushing and 285 yards passing.
“I don’t think that Paul and them are necessarily trying to slow the game down,” Fedora said. “It’s just what they do. They’re still trying to score on every play. They’re probably more methodical. They’re going to pick up 4 or 5 yards a carry. They’re going to move the chains, which is going to run the clock, which will keep the defense on the field.”
The other side of the coin is the stress that the offensive strategy has placed on the North Carolina defense. Because the Tar Heels play at such a fast pace, the defense is spending more than 35 minutes per game on the field, which helps explain why the team is allowing 508 yards per game.
“When you play as many snaps as they play, when you hurry up on one end, the other side gets a lot of turns, too,” Johnson said. “Sometimes stats can be somewhat deceiving in that they’re playing 30 or 40 plays more on defense than the other teams are playing. I think it’s all relative.”
The Yellow Jackets definitely will be stressed on defense, if they can’t control the ball. The strategy worked fine against Miami, when Georgia Tech held the ball for 40 minutes and limited Miami to 42 offensive plays. It didn’t work so well last week against Duke when the Yellow Jackets held the ball for only 30 minutes, largely because of three turnovers.
The Georgia Tech defense has shown the ability to bend but not break. The Yellow Jackets allow 25 points -- far superior to the 43.3 points allowed by UNC -- and have given up 200.7 yards passing per game, which ranks 26th in the nation. But Georgia Tech allows 187.7 yards rushing, which puts them at No. 92.
“We have to stay away from giving up the big plays,” Johnson said. “We have to play rush defense. We can’t let people run the ball. Duke ran the ball on us very effectively. That was disappointing. We’ve got to try to get some turnovers. We aren’t doing a very good job of getting the ball out. There’s a lot of things we can do better, just like on offense, a lot of things on defense we can do better.”
This game will have a definite impact on the ACC’s Coastal Division, which must be considered wide-open after Georgia Tech’s loss to Duke. Virginia leads the division at 2-0 but plays Saturday at Duke. Should Duke win that game and Georgia Tech beats UNC, there would be a four-way tie for first. Regardless, the division championship isn’t likely to be determined until the final week.
A win by Georgia Tech would make the Yellow Jackets eligible for a bowl game for the 18th consecutive year.