CHAPEL HILL – Hakeem Nicks was so caught up in the moment, he didn't even realize who'd thrown him the pass he caught to set the North Carolina school record for receiving yards.
The quarterback was T.J. Yates, making his long-awaited return from a broken ankle, and the fact that he was engaged in mop-up duty at all was a testament to what happened on the other side of the ball for the 19th-ranked Tar Heels, who controlled the triple-option attack of No. 22 Georgia Tech to earn a 28-7 win.
Nicks had already put the finishing touches on North Carolina's win with a 31-yard touchdown reception from starting quarterback Cam Sexton with four minutes to go in the game.
But UNC's coaches in the booth called down to the field to let head coach Butch Davis know that Nicks was just four yards shy of Corey Holliday's school record.
"I didn't know how close I was," Nicks said. "Coach Davis put me back in and said, 'Throw him a hitch.' I was determined that I was going to get it."
Despite Nicks' success and a career day for tailback Ryan Houston, who ran for 74 yards and two touchdowns, the game was hardly an offensive showcase for the Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2 in the ACC).
The story was their defense, which took advantage of two late fumbles by Georgia Tech to turn a 7-0 game – Sexton threw an 8-yard touchdown to Zack Pianalto on the game's first drive – into the relatively high-scoring affair it eventually became.
The first came when Roddy Jones muffed a punt near the end of the third quarter, and UNC's Matt Merletti recovered.
Six plays later, Houston scored his first touchdown of the day, from two yards out.
Georgia Tech (7-3, 4-3) only made it two plays into its next drive before giving the ball back to the Tar Heels again.
Quarterback Jaybo Shaw, who relieved starter Josh Nesbitt in the second half, fumbled after a hit by Robert Quinn, and linebacker Mark Paschal snapped up the loose ball.
The Tar Heels then gave the ball to Houston five straight times, the final run being a 3-yard touchdown.
"I feel like the game really slowed down for me, like I was back in high school again," Houston said.
The 21-0 fourth-quarter lead made it all but impossible for Tech's run-based attack to mount a comeback.
"That's about one of the only ways you can get them out of their element," Davis said.
Carolina had held its last three opponents to less than 90 yards rushing but couldn't continue that trend against the Yellow Jackets, who came into the game leading the ACC with an average of 242 rushing yards per game.
Tech rolled up 326 rushing yards against UNC but could never do any damage on the scoreboard thanks to the Tar Heels making stops when it counted, including twice on fourth down in the first half.
It certainly helped the Tar Heels that they had an open date prior to this game, giving them extra time to prepare for the Jackets' triple-option offense.
"Seeing it for two weeks definitely played a part in our success on the field," Paschal said. "The whole key when you're playing the triple option is to not give up big plays. We only gave up one big play all day."
That was Jonathan Dwyer's 85-yard touchdown run with six minutes to go that made it 21-7.
But by then, the game was well in hand for Carolina, which has now beaten three ranked opponents in the same season for the first time since 1992.
The Tar Heels, who wore Navy-blue jerseys for the first time ever, assured themselves of a winning season for the first time since 2001 and put themselves squarely in contention for the Coastal Division crown.
With all that excitement, it's no wonder Nicks had a hard time focusing on who was under center for his record-setting grab.