Atlanta, GA - North Carolina tight ends coach Allen Mogridge's look of disappointment said everything, as he sat dejectedly outside of the team locker room following the Tar Heels (3-1, 1-1 ACC) 35-28 loss to Georgia Tech (4-0, 1-0 ACC).
The last time UNC beat the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta was 1997, Mogridge's redshirt sophomore season.
"They hit some plays in the second half, but when we had to the defense got a couple stops and that was all we needed to win the game," Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. "I think they have a good football team, both teams played hard and I was proud of our guys."
The thought that likely coursed through the minds of many Carolina fans minds after Giovani Bernard scored the game's first points with a four-yard touchdown run, and again when he sprinted 55 yards for the game-tying touchdown with 7:22 left in the contest was this is the day the Tar Heels break their six-game losing streak (now seven) at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"I'm disappointed with the loss, but I'm very proud of this football team, the way they came back and fought in the second half," UNC interim head coach Everett Withers said.
After drawing first blood Carolina's defense allowed 20-unanswered points by the Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington (25 carries for 74 yards and two touchdowns) led the triple-option attack that wrecked UNC's defense for 312 yards on 58 carries, winning the time of possession 36:07 to the Heels 23:53.
"You've got to hold off, and not be tired, and just tell yourself you can go," UNC linebacker Kevin Reddick said. "It's tough not getting off the field when it's third down and short. We've just got to capitalize on that, and make up for the mistakes."
Aside from Bernard's stellar performance (17 carries for 155 yards and two touchdowns) North Carolina struggled offensively to get into a rhythm until the 7:37 mark of the third quarter when Bryn Renner found Nelson Hurst on a six-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-14.
Renner completed 17-25 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns, but the redshirt sophomore was intercepted twice. He also fumbled once, but Brennan Williams recovered for UNC.
The Tar Heels offensive line struggled to protect Renner, allowing him to be sacked seven times.
"They played a defense there at the end, not on third down, where all the linemen were standing up, what we call a radar defense, and you don't know which one is coming, the fourth rusher," Withers said. "We had the protection a couple of times. I felt like Bryn could've gotten rid of the ball a couple of times. For the most part, it was tough on a young quarterback. We've got to do some things to help him out a little bit more."
Withers is obviously right that they need to help Renner more, but the Springfield, VA native's interceptions were costly mental mistakes, with one leading to a two-yard touchdown run by Roddy Jones.
That is what it was for the Heels, mistakes and losing the battle for field position. Georgia Tech had one turnover to UNC's two, and only committed three penalties for 23 yards, while the Tar Heels had six for 40 yards. The Yellow Jackets average starting field position was their own 35 yard line, while Carolina's was its own 29.
"We had a great opening drive," Renner said. "We stalled a little bit in a couple of those drives in the first half. They're a great defense. Coach [Al] Groh did a great job, and we're going to give them all the credit. Second half we had a little bit more success, but still didn't make enough plays to win the ballgame, and that starts with me."
As the quarterback Renner took responsibility, which is expected, but when the defense is allowing 496 yards of total offense and 35 points it is a two-way street.
"[Against] this offense, it's everybody doing their job, and if one guy gets tied up, and he has to take the next guy's responsibility, and the ball gets on the boundary, then it's a tough offense."
In the past with Johnson's masterminded offensive schemes the struggle has been defending against the fakes and misdirection of the triple-option, but Washington and Stephen Hill have added another dimension to Georgia Tech's offense.
The Yellow Jackets often lulled the Tar Heels to sleep with their running game before smoking them on long passes from Washington to Hill, including a 59-yard scoring strike that put Georgia Tech up 10-7 with 7:57 in the second quarter.
What had to be most disappointing for the Tar Heels was how open Hill often was. The 6-foot-5 and 206-pound receiver (six receptions for a 151 yards and a touchdown) frequently managed to be all by himself behind Carolina's secondary. He could have kept UNC from ever tying the game if he had not dropped what would have likely been a touchdown pass with 11:10 left in the game.
"The offense that they run it's made for him [Hill] to be wide-open," UNC defensive back Tre Boston said.
Regardless of how good Johnson's offensive scheming or Washington's execution was there is no excuse for Hill to be that open. There is no reason for Renner to be throwing into quadruple coverage, to be taking sacks in two-minute situations, and for the defense to give up eight first down conversions in third down situations.
This is a team loss, and a disappointing one at that for the Tar Heels.