The Yellow Jackets (4-5, 3-3 ACC) hold a 26-18-3 series lead over the Tar Heels (6-3, 3-2 ACC), including a 12-2 record in the last 14 matchups. UNC opened as a 5.5-point favorite, but that line has since increased to 8.5 points.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson has come under fire in recent weeks as his team has lost four of its last six contests. He fired defensive coordinator Al Groh in October after the Yellow Jackets allowed 42 or more points in three consecutive games.
Johnson has since switched from Groh’s 3-4 defensive scheme to the traditional 4-3 look with some level of improvement in effectiveness. Georgia Tech ranks 61st nationally in total defense (394.7 ypg) and T-66th in scoring defense (28.0 ppg).
The challenge for the Yellow Jackets this weekend will be to contain a North Carolina offense averaging 39.4 points (16th) and 487.8 yards per game (16th). The Tar Heels have rushed for 200 or more yards in four of their last five games, headlined by ACC Player of the Year candidate Gio Bernard (132.9 rushing ypg; 8.8 yards per touch; 15 total TDs).
“He’s the kind of guy, if you miss tackles, he’s going to go the distance,” coach Paul Johnson said of Bernard. “He’s got great speed. You’ve got to try to hem him in and rally around him. The first guy’s not going to get him down every time, so you’ve got to have more guys coming.”
North Carolina’s offense, however, has been in consistent at times in sustaining drives. While 56 of UNC’s 120 possessions in 2012 have gone for scores, 37 have resulted in three-and-outs or turnovers.
Georgia Tech’s offensive approach is built to control the clock (31:04 TOP, 39th nationally), while UNC’s no-huddle spread is designed to strike early and often (27:31 TOP, 106th).
“We’ve got to move the chains,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “We have to play flawless. We can’t have any pre- or post-snap penalties. And we’ve got to take care of the football – that’s a big deal. We can’t give them extra possessions.”
Johnson’s multidimensional rushing attack leads the ACC and ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards (318.2 ypg). The fifth-year Ramblin’ Wreck head coach bristles, however, at the notion that his offense should be classified as a triple-option look. That’s one of several different offenses rolled into Georgia Tech’s scheme, but the mere inclusion of the triple option forces teams to prepare for it.
“The philosophy is a triple-option offense,” Fedora said. “As a defense, you have to be prepared for the dive, the quarterback and the pitch. That’s three options, so you’ve got to be prepared for it on each and every play. They may not be running a lot of full triple option plays, it may be more double option, it may be a dive with the quarterback, but they mix it up and you’ve got to be prepared every single play for all three.”
It doesn’t help that the Tar Heel defense (ranked 19th nationally against the run, 111.0 ypg) has to also prepare for a pair of quarterbacks – senior Tevin Washington (511 rushing yards, 16 TD; 901 passing yards, 4 TD) and red-shirt freshman Vad Lee (322 rushing yards, 6 TD; 277 passing yards, 2 TD).
Washington’s next rushing touchdown will tie the ACC record (35) for most career rushing scores by a quarterback.
“Tevin has a lot of experience,” Johnson said. “He’s played a lot of football. You’re not going to line up too many ways that he’s not seen or he doesn’t know what to do. Vad brings a lot of athleticism and a lot of energy when he comes out there. You kind of get two different things out of both those guys.
A controversial topic revolving around Johnson’s offensive approach is the offensive line’s reliance on cut blocks - a legal, yet potentially dangerous, block below the waist.
“It’s not fun at all, man,” UNC defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said of dealing with the cut blocks. “To me, it’s kind of nerve-wracking. I’d rather a guy block me up top and we can go to war that way, so it’s different when you have to play a guy and he’s on the ground the whole time.“
A North Carolina victory would match the school’s win total in 2011 and improve its record to 6-0 at home. The Tar Heels have posted a 7-0 home record just once in school history (1980).
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