Sylvester Williams and the UNC defense will be challenged by Georgia Tech's triple-option offense. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina entered the final month of the season with a bye week, and after its most dramatic, and important, victory – a 43-35 triumph against N.C. State that wasn’t decided until Giovani Bernard’s 74-yard punt return for a touchdown in the final seconds.
Yet even if the Tar Heels can’t play in the postseason, UNC players and coaches have said there is still plenty to play for: finishing first in the Coastal Division, an undefeated home record and finishing with nine regular-season victories, which would the Heels’ most since 1997.
Next up for UNC: Georgia Tech on Saturday at Kenan Stadium …
Georgia Tech at UNC
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill
What to watch:
--UNC’s offensive pace. Sustaining drives will be important on Saturday for the Tar Heels, who want Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense to spend plenty of time on the sideline. But while UNC hopes to sustain drives, it might also hope to do so while taking additional time off the clock. First-year coach Larry Fedora has made clear the desired pace for his offense. But he could slow things down on Saturday to keep time of possession in his team’s favor.
--How long will it take the Tar Heels to adapt to the triple option? The Tar Heels play Georgia Tech every season, and so UNC enters this game with a sense of familiarity with the triple option. Still, after practicing against a watered-down, slow-pace scout team version of the triple option, it will take time for the Tar Heels to adjust to the speed of the option on Saturday. Sylvester Williams, UNC’s senior defensive tackle, said it took him about a full series last year before he was accustomed to how fast Georgia Tech runs its offense.
--UNC’s offensive line. This is the second game that the Tar Heels will be without Brennan Williams, the right tackle who was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Travis Bond moved from the inside of the line, at guard, to the outside to take over for Williams. Landon Turner, a redshirt freshman, is starting at right guard. It’s not easy for an offensive line to adjust late in the season, but the Heels effectively did that in the victory against N.C. State. UNC’s line should again open plenty of holes in the running game for Bernard.
Key player from the opposition: Georgia Tech QB Tevin Washington enters Saturday needing one rushing touchdown to tie both the school and ACC record for most career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Washington, who soundly fits coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense, has run for 34 touchdowns in his career. This season, his 16 rushing touchdowns rank second nationally behind Kansas State’s Colin Klein.
As with other quarterbacks in Johnson’s offense, Washington doesn’t pose much of a threat in the passing game. At least on paper. He has thrown for 901 yards, and hasn’t attempted more than eight passes in any of the Yellow Jackets’ past three games. But Washington is good at what he needs to be good at in the triple-option: running and decision-making. His 511 rushing yards rank ninth in the ACC, and those 16 rushing touchdowns lead the league.
Key matchup: North Carolina DT Sylvester Williams and the Tar Heels’ defensive line vs. Washington, RB Orwin Smith and the Yellow Jackets’ running game.
In describing how to defend the triple-option, Fedora spoke two words probably more than any others this week: Assignment discipline. The triple-option provides a unique challenge for any defense, and the Heels must understand their assignments and remain disciplined enough to stick with them.
Few offenses expose defensive lapses better than the triple-option, and when Georgia Tech executes a play perfectly, it’s nearly impossible to stop the Yellow Jackets. UNC can’t afford to make it easier for Georgia Tech.
Key mismatch: UNC RB Giovani Bernard vs. the Georgia Tech run defense
Since firing defensive coordinator Al Groh on Oct. 8, the Yellow Jackets have improved against the run. In the three games before Groh’s departure, Georgia Tech allowed at least 173 yards rushing. In the three games since Groh left, the Jackets have allowed an average of 119.7 rushing yards.
Without Groh, Georgia Tech has gone from a three-man defensive front to a 4-3 defense, and that will put more defenders closer to the point of attack against Bernard, who leads the ACC in rushing. Still, Bernard has had a way this season of making defenses look bad, and UNC’s offensive line is still one of the nation’s best – even without RT Brennan Williams, who is out for the season.
Key number: 40 – The Tar Heels possess enough power on offense to score 40 points. They’ve done that four times this season, and won every one of those games. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is 0-4 when it has allowed 40 points, which it most recently did in a 41-17 defeat against BYU on Oct. 27.
Pulse check: UNC is coming off of both its bye week and, before that, its most significant victory of the season – that 43-35 triumph against N.C. State that wasn’t decided until Bernard’s 74-yard punt return in the final seconds. Still, Fedora and his players have insisted motivation won’t be an issue during the Heels’ final three games. UNC can’t play in the postseason, but it’s seeking to finish undefeated at home for the first time since 1995. If the Heels win their final three games to finish 9-3, it will be their best finish since 1997.
Quote of the week: “The scheme is if they execute, you can’t get enough guys to the ball. Because if they get their blocks and they execute, you just cannot, schematically, get enough guys. They will schematically get somebody from one side to the other faster than you can. You just can’t do it. So somebody’s got to get off a block, somebody’s got to beat a block. And you’ve got to run like the dickens to get there.” –UNC defensive coordinator Vic Koenning on defending Georgia Tech’s triple-option.
Loosely-related-to-the-game pregame haiku:
Heels’ triple option
Gio, Gio and Gio
Trumps the Ramblin’ Wreck’s
Prediction: North Carolina 40, Georgia Tech 31