ATLANTA -- A season that began with such promise for Georgia Tech has deteriorated to the point where the Yellow Jackets now find themselves in survival mode after Saturday’s 38-31 loss to North Carolina.
Injuries, inexperience, a thin defense and a stressed offense have played roles in a 2-3 start and virturally eliminated the Yellow Jackets from a return trip to the ACC championship game.
“I’m sure that our players feel like I do,” Georgia Tech head coach coach Paul Johnson said. “I feel like I’ve been gut punched.”
On this particular occasion, a misty, cool day at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Yellow Jackets scored on their first three possessions, led 21-0 and seemed to have cured its ills following disappointing losses to Notre Dame and Duke. But a couple of hours later, they were walking off the field with their third straight defeat and wondering where it all went wrong.
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“I thought we had plenty of chances,” Johnson said. “You have to give them credit. They made plays when they had to and came back and won the game. We kind of let it slip away from us.”
The culprit for the second straight year was North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, who ran for 148 yards and two touchdowns, threw for 134 yards and caught a 37-yard touchdown pass that may have stuck a dagger in the season. A week ago, Williams was yanked against Delaware, and fans in Chapel Hill were calling for his replacement.
“He was a beast (Saturday),” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “Everybody questioned him on the outside. He came out and played, and he was determined to play well.”
Things came unwound for Georgia Tech in the fourth quarter. The Yellow Jackets led 28-24 and had third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal from the 1, but they failed to score when Thomas was stopped at the line on both tries.
“They filled the gaps, and we didn’t get the push we needed,” senior guard Trey Braun said.
The Georgia Tech defense held and forced a short punt, giving the Yellow Jackets the ball at the North Carolina 36. That’s when the meltdown really began.
Thomas had the ball stripped by Cayson Collins, and Junior Gnokonde recovered at the Georgia Tech 37. On the next play, while the Yellow Jackets were still unsettled on defense, the Tar Heels ran a double-reverse pass.
Receiver T.J. Logan faked a reverse run and pitched the ball back to receiver Quinshad Davis, who found Williams open for a 37-yard touchdown, which seemed to suck all the air out of the stadium.
“I think that play is 100 percent for us,” Fedora said. “We hit them with the fumble, which was the turning point of the game. Then, while you’ve got them on their heels, we came back at them with that play.”
Georgia Tech found a bit of its offensive mojo and ran for 255 yards, but 204 of that came in the first half. The Yellow Jackets fumbled four times, losing one, and converted only 5-of-13 on third down. They allowed quarterback Justin Thomas to be sacked twice and had a bad snap on a punt for the second straight week that nearly led to a block.
“Right now we’re not good enough in any facet to overcome that,” Johnson said. “We need contributions out of everybody. It’s got to be offense, defense and special teams. There’s no one group that’s good enough to carry the other side.”
The Yellow Jackets ran a no-huddle offense for the first time. Johnson signaled the calls from the sideline rather than use messengers so the offense wouldn’t miss the checks. The approach paid dividends right away, as Georgia Tech scored on its first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead.
The first drive went 64 yards, required 10 plays and culminated in a 1-yard run by Thomas. The second drive covered 85 yards in 14 plays, with Clinton Lynch scoring on a 14-yard run. The third drive went 68 yards and took 13 plays, with Thomas scoring from the 1. The first two drives were exclusively on the ground; Thomas didn’t throw his first pass until the opening play of the third possession.
North Carolina couldn’t get anything going until late in the second quarter, when the Tar Heels quickly drove 75 yards, with Elijah Hood scoring on a 1-yard run with 1:29 left.
Georgia Tech decided to be aggressive in the waning minute, but the Yellow Jackets missed on a couple of passes -- Thomas overthrew Clinton Lynch on a play that would have gone a long way -- and had to punt. The snap to punter Ryan Rodwell was low and went through his hands. He was able to recover, avoid a tackler an get off a 23-yard punt.
The Tar Heels had 56 seconds left and covered the 44 yards in six plays, with Williams running up the middle for a 7-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14 at the half.
“The momentum change was right before halftime when we’re up 21-7 and run play-action and the guy’s behind him and we don’t hit it,” Johnson sad. “And when we let them come down and score.”
The Yellow Jackets, once ranked as high as No. 14 in the nation, have lost three in a row for the fourth time under Johnson. They did it last in 2013 when they recovered to go 7-6 and play in the Music City Bowl. Repeating that feat with games remaining at Clemson and Miami and against Florida State and Georgia won’t be easy.
“As to how we use it, at this point we use it as a loss,” Braun said. “That is something we have to move forward from. A loss, no matter how you come by it, is still a loss. It is something you have to move forward from and cannot let break you down.”