On a night that former football head coach Paul Johnson was honored for being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Tech produced a performance that Coach Johnson would be proud of with a 46-42 win over the 17th ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. The win was current head coach Brent Key’s fourth ranked win against ACC opponents and the first ranked home win of his tenure.
The Jackets started the game off slowly, falling into a 14-0 deficit at the end of the first quarter; however, the offense woke up in the second quarter. On Tech’s first drive, they scored on an explosive play from redshirt sophomore wide receiver Malik Rutherford, who caught a screen pass at the 42-yard line and sliced through the defense on his way to the endzone for Tech’s first score of the game. However, the Jackets were unable to stop the Tar Heel offense who made the score 21-7. Tech would immediately respond on the next drive thanks to a 35-yard touchdown throw from redshirt sophomore quarterback Haynes King to redshirt junior tight end Brett Seither to once again cut the lead down to seven. The Tech defense made a huge stop to force a three-and-out for the North Carolina offense. Starting their next drive from their own 14-yard line, the Jackets moved the ball down the field quickly thanks to a 43-yard throw from King to freshman wide receiver Eric Singleton, Jr. to move the offense to the North Carolina 38-yard line. Redshirt senior running back Dontae Smith would then push the jackets into the red zone on three straight runs. King would then connect with Rutherford once again as he dove into the endzone for his second score of the game, making the score 21-21. The Tar Heels would respond with a touchdown of their own to make the score 28- 21 with just 45 seconds remaining in the half. With just under a minute to muster up a drive, Tech would start from their own 25-yard line, where they moved swiftly into Tar Heel territory thanks to a trio of chunk passes from King to Singleton. The Jackets would then send out red-shirt freshman kicker Aidan Birr who would knock through the 40-yard field goal as time expired to make the score 28-24 at the half.
After a slow first quarter, Tech responded well with King going 14 for 14 with 223 passing yards in the second quarter. Singleton Jr. was King’s favorite target, collecting 117 yards from eight receptions. Rutherford accounted for 83 yards and two touchdowns from his six receptions. Tech outgained North Carolina with 360-yards to 287, proving that the offense could keep up with the high powered Tar Heel offense.
The Jackets started the second half better than the first, forcing a North Carolina three-and-out and then blocking the ensuing punt with redshirt junior wide receiver Abdul Janneh running unblocked to the punter and swatting the ball. Tech, however, was unable to capitalize on
the great field position from the block, but the momentum of the game was starting to swing in favor of the Jackets. The Tar Heels then marched down the field to extend their lead to 35-24. Tech was unable to respond, and junior punter David Shanahan would boom a 61-yard punt to force the Tar Heels to start from their own four-yard line. The Tech defense would hold and force North Carolina to punt the ball away right as the fourth quarter started.
On the Jackets’ first drive of the final quarter, Smith and red-shirt sophomore running back Jamal Haynes almost single handedly brought the Jackets from the Tech 12-yard line to the endzone, combining for 74 of the 88 yards on the drive as Haynes scampered in for the four yard score. Key then elected to go for the two point conversion which was successful with Rutherford coasting in from a King pass, making the score 35-32 in favor of North Carolina. The Tar Heels would then immediately respond with a touchdown of their own, returning their lead to two possessions at 42-32. Tech would then start their next drive from their own 25-yard line. Smith started out the drive with a five yard gain, but on the very next play, he would explode through the middle of the North Carolina defense and run the ball 70-yards to the house to make the score 42-39. The Jackets defense would then hold strong against the Tar Heels and force a missed field goal. Tech would start the next drive from their own 21-yard line, and King would soon flip the field as he broke free for 51-yards all the way to the Tar
Heels’ 28-yard line. King would finish the drive off, guiding a ball to Seither in the end zone to give him his second touchdown of the night and giving Tech their first lead of the game by a score of 46-42. The defense would then force a massive turnover thanks to red-shirt sophomore defensive back Ahmari Harvey dislodging the ball from North Carolina receiver Devontez “Tez” Walker, resulting in a recovery from the Jackets’ defense. With just under three minutes remaining in the game, Tech would run the ball with both King and Smith to burn time, and after a pair of first downs from Smith, Tech would learn from Miami’s fatal mistake and assume victory formation to secure a 46-42 win over 17th ranked North Carolina.
The result was a real team effort, but the Jackets were led by both King and Smith. King threw for 287-yards with four touchdowns, adding 90-yards on the ground as well. King’s performance gained national attention as he was named the Manning Award Star of the Week and ACC Quarterback of the Week. Smith torched the North Carolina defense all night, tallying 178-yards and a touchdown; his performance was highlighted by his electrifying 70-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The 635-yards of offense were a season high and the most-ever yards put up against an ACC opponent for the Jackets. The win marks Tech’s third straight over a nationally ranked North Carolina team, bringing all the fans to rush the field at the end of the game. The game also serves as Tech’s second ranked win this season, having beat then 17th ranked Miami just two weeks prior. Tech has oddly not lost to a team from North Carolina since 2020, going 7-0 since Dec. 5, 2020. The team now looks to carry the momentum into their next game as they travel to Charlottesville, Virginia to take on the Virginia Cavaliers.