ATLANTA — One hour before kickoff, the home team’s locker room turned into a lecture hall.
At times pin-drop silent, all the room’s attention and focus were directed at the booming voice of a single speaker.
Derrick Moore — Georgia Tech’s team chaplain affectionately nicknamed “D-Mo” by his attentive pupils — was delivering an impassioned speech encouraging his young listeners to be accountable for their actions and to go out and take what was rightfully theirs.
In the second half, they did.
Rolling over No. 22 North Carolina 24-7 in a key ACC showdown, the Yellow Jackets returned several hours later to the space where Moore delivered his passionate plea.
Soggy, sweaty and rain-soaked, the Yellow Jackets came back all smiles, having concluded as hard-fought a win as their coaches claimed to have seen all year.
“It was a great win for our program,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “I am really proud of our guys. I think a lot of people had written them off and us off. We came out and played with intensity and were focused. We didn’t do everything right, but we played hard.”
In their previous game, full intensity and focus seemed to be an issue for the Yellow Jackets (3-1, 2-1 ACC) as they struggled to a 95-yard rushing total en route to losing to Miami in a key Coastal Division contest.
Their third game in less than two weeks, it seemed exhaustion had caught up to the Yellow Jackets.
“I think that we didn’t talk much about that, because you don’t want to give them a crutch or us a crutch or whatever, but there’s no doubt it affected the way we played (that) Thursday night,” Johnson said Saturday. “Miami’s a good team, and they’re quick, but we looked like we were running in sand. And I think we had our legs back a little better (Saturday).”
One of the pairs of legs that looked back in top form belonged to B-back Jonathan Dwyer, who rushed for more than 100 yards for the first time this season and the 11th time of his three-year career.
The reigning ACC player of the year, Dwyer had been held to to less than 100 yards in each of his first three games while seeing limited action. He was taken out of the season opener because Georgia Tech was well ahead. He played all of the second game but was held to less than 70 yards. And last week, he left in the second half due to injury.
Against the Tar Heels (3-1, 0-1), Dwyer racked up 158 yards on 19 carries and soundly negated the high praise that followed North Carolina’s defense into the game.
“Coach Johnson told us that we have to accept this challenge and that they are going to try to compete with us, so we have to fight back,” Dwyer said. “If they punch at us, we have to punch back and keep punching.”
A heralded unit, the Tar Heels too the country’s sixth-best defense into Bobby Dodd Stadium after allowing an average of 198.7 yards of total offense in their first three games. By halftime, the Yellow Jackets had shattered that mark with 239.
“You have to give Georgia Tech a tremendous amount of credit,” North Carolina head coach Butch Davis said. “They did a tremendous job executing their offense, and they kept our defense on the field.”
Davis cited the team’s “lopsided” time of possession and third-down efficiency numbers in explaining how the Yellow Jackets rolled over his program.
By comparison, Georgia Tech had the ball for more than 42 minutes, while North Carolina touched it for just less than 18. On third downs, the Yellow Jackets were 10-for-19, while the Tar Heels were just 1-for-11.
“Third-and-long. They didn’t have very many third-and-shorts, and we stopped them from running the football,” Johnson said of the third-down numbers. “The team that runs the football best will win the game 99 out of 100 times.”
Along with Dwyer’s afternoon on the ground, quarterback Josh Nesbitt had a prolific rushing performance, running 32 times for 97 yards. He also scored twice on the ground, including a 10-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter that iced the win.
“My body is built for it,” Nesbitt said of his numberous carries with a big ice pack on his leg. “It’s tough, but it’s what I have to do to win.”
Not to be outdone, the Yellow Jackets’ defense was led by junior safety Morgan Burnett, who secured two interceptions. Listening to Moore, Burnett said he felt he had to be accountable.
“He’s a powerful speaker, and you know that D-Mo has your best interest at heart,” Burnett said. “Just seeing D-Mo on the sidelines out there on the sidelines supporting you, you don’t want to let D-Mo down. He’s a great motivator, and seeing him gets you pumped up and makes you want to give it your all.”