Tech rebounds to roll past No. 22 UNC

Tech’s football team avenged its loss to North Carolina last season by defeating the Tar Heels 24-7 at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. The win improved the Jackets’ record to 3-1 overall, including a 2-1 mark in ACC play.

The Jackets’ option attack was much more effective than it was in last week’s loss to Miami, picking up 406 total yards, but it was Tech’s defense that was the real key to the victory. The Jackets allowed the Tar Heels to gain just 154 yards of total offense. Tech’s defense also forced three turnovers and only gave up 17 rushing yards on 18 UNC carries.

It was a strong rebound performance for the defense, which had struggled against Miami and allowed the Hurricanes to collect 270 yards passing and 184 yards rushing. Following that game, the coaching staff decided to switch the defensive scheme from the 4-2-5 to a simpler 4-3 setup. The addition of the third linebacker paid off, as the Jackets held UNC to just seven points after allowing the Hurricanes to score 33.

“I think [the switch] might have helped some, but you know what we did, we simplified it and the kids could play,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson.

The start of the game was promising for the Jackets. Tech opened the game on defense and promptly forced the Tar Heels into a three-and-out. On their ensuing offensive drive, the Jackets moved the ball 88 yards down the field on nine plays—all running plays. The drive was capped off with a 13-yard touchdown run by sophomore A-back Roddy Jones. It was Jones’ first touchdown of the season.

Tech’s defense continued its strong play throughout the opening period. UNC had two more possessions and went three-and-out both times, and Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates completed just one of six passes for one yard in the quarter.

In the second quarter the Tar Heels picked up a first down on their fifth drive of the game. On a third-down play a botched snap missed Yates completely and the Jackets took advantage, with junior defensive end Derrick Morgan recovering deep in UNC territory.

Junior kicker Scott Blair capped the brief drive with a 34-yard field goal to give Tech the 10-0 lead. It was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult day for Blair, who sent the ensuing kickoff out-of-bounds and missed his other two field goal attempts in the game.

Following a failed UNC field goal attempt, the Jackets had the ball at their 20-yard line with 2:12 left in the half. The Jackets reached midfield with less than a minute left, and junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt completed a pass to junior wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for nine yards. Thomas appeared to step out of bounds as he attempted to shake off a defender, but officials ruled that his forward progress had been stopped while he was still in bounds and that the clock would continue to run. With no timeouts left, the Jackets ultimately ran out of time, and the score remained 10-0 at halftime.

Tech’s first drive of the third quarter saw the team hold the ball for more than half the quarter—8:37 in total—as the team drove 61 yards on 14 plays. Blair missed a 27-yard field goal try, though, and the score remained 10-0. Neither team was able to score in the quarter, with each team punting once and Tech safety Morgan Burnett collecting an interception to end UNC’s second drive.

Burnett’s incerception sparked a Tech touchdown drive in the fourth that gave the Jackets a 17-0 lead. Junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt took the snap at the one-yard line and ran into the end zone for his first score of the day. With Tech ahead by three scores, UNC’s offense drove down the field on a four-play, 60-yard drive that only took one minute to complete. Yates threw a pass over two Tech defenders to freshman receiver Erik Highsmith for a 40-yard touchdown, cutting the lead to 17-7.

Tech responded immediately with another long drive. The Jackets took over on their own 24-yard line and took the ball all the way down the field, converting five third downs on the way. Nesbitt punched the ball into the end zone again, this time from 10 yards out. The 17-play, 76-yard drive included 15 running plays and took 8:20 off the clock.

“They hit us with a really big play and we responded. We came back and converted some third downs and basically put the game out of reach with the clock,” Johnson said.

UNC had a chance to come back with four minutes left in the game, but Burnett picked off a Yates pass for the second time that day to preserve the lead. Burnett also had a team-high six tackles to lead Tech’s strong defensive effort.

Nesbitt carried much of the load offensively, with a team-high 32 carries for 97 yards and two touchdowns. His passing numbers improved from the previous week, as he completed seven of 11 passes for 89 yards.

“[Nesbitt is] probably a little sore, but he’ll be OK. He is probably the toughest quarterback I’ve ever met in my life,” said junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer.

Dwyer also rebounded from a seven-yard performance against Miami in a big way. The junior B-back rushed for a team-high 158 yards on 19 carries, including a 39-yard run during the team’s long drive to open the third quarter. The run came on a new draw play that the team added to its playbook after the Miami game.

“It was a new play, and it caught them off guard. It was a good play, and all Coach Johnson is trying to do is get me into space to try to make a play,” Dwyer said.

With their win coupled with Miami’s loss, Tech is now tied for second in the ACC Coastal Division with the Hurricanes and trails defending conference champion Virginia Tech. The Jackets’ next home game will come against the Hokies on Oct. 17, but for the next two weeks the team will be on the road as they face Mississippi State tomorrow night and Florida State on Oct. 10.