North Carolina gave itself a chance to win last weekend at Georgia Tech, but the defense allowed 496 total yards to the Yellow Jackets, including 312 rushing yards.
There were some miscommunications, particularly within the secondary on a few pass plays, but the defense was put into some difficult situations due to UNC's three turnovers.
"The defense did a great job the whole day. We've just got to put the ball in the end zone. It's always good when you've a chance to win late in the ball game, and we just didn't capitalize today, and we need to do better," said quarterback Bryn Renner.
Here's our defensive report card for Georgia Tech:
For defensive linemen, playing Georgia Tech is the ultimate challenge. Everybody knows the Yellow Jackets run the old-school triple-option, and their linemen, while perhaps smaller than a lot of other schools, are skilled at quick off-the-ball bursts and the ever-present cut block.
"Georgia Tech, they're a great team. We came out to play, but they came out to play a little harder," said defensive tackle Tydreke Powell. "It's nowhere near close with the Scout Team and the real thing. But our Scout Team gave us a pretty good look. We ran it with our 'one' offense and we've been working on this offense. It's nothing we haven't seen, but they just came out to play."
"Yeah, it's definitely hard to replicate," added Quinton Coples about Tech's offensive scheme. "That's a one-of-a-kind offense, you know. They're unique individuals, each and every one of them. Yeah, it's definitely hard to duplicate as far as in practice. You just try to have the best week you can with the Scout team.
While the Yellow Jackets didn't break off any runs of more than 50 yards, they did have a couple of big-gainers on the ground, including Orwin Smith's 36-yarder, and Roddy Jones' 48-yarder.
"I think it's more just leveraging the ball when you're talking about the long runs," said UNC head coach Everett Withers. "This (Georgia Tech's) offense, it's everybody (on the defense) 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 (to stop)."
"I think that on some plays they made that was big, they lulled us to sleep and we were a little undisciplined. But overall I think that we did pretty good. I think that we'll learn from these mistakes today and move forward," added defensive end Quinton Coples.
Withers says the defensive linemen could have done a better job of getting off blocks against the Yellow Jackets.
"We didn't do a good job getting off a block---getting off a 'crack' and our corner got leveraged and the ball got on the boundary," he said.
"We knew they were going to gain yards. Our objective was to keep them out of the end zone and no more than three or less points on a possession. The biggest thing we wanted to do was stay disciplined and make sure we took care of ourselves," added Coples.
"They took some shots and did some things we hadn't seen, we hadn't focused on as much. I think they were the better team, and they stepped up and made plays without as many mistakes."
Although the UNC defensive line didn't play horribly---especially in the second half---they were caught out of position quite a few times in the first half, as Georgia Tech built a 17-7 halftime lead.
"With this team (Georgia Tech) you never want to get behind. But we know we're a great team. No matter what the score was, we were always going to fight and come back," said Powell.
One of the things that gave the defensive line confidence was early in the second half, when they helped hold Georgia Tech to a field goal on its opening possession of the third quarter.
UNC promptly went down and scored, making a game of it.
"It was a lot of confidence (for us) when they came out and they got a field goal (in the third quarter), because Georgia Tech, everybody knows they're a fourth down team, so that was real big for us," Powell said.
But at the end of the day, Georgia Tech's ability to maintain possession for over 36 minutes allowed them to control the clock and subsequently wear UNC's big guys on defense down over the course of the second half.
"It's always frustrating playing Georgia Tech if you're on the field a lot of snaps, because this team, they're going to make something happen if you stay on the field. So it was pretty frustrating," Powell said. "(But) with the group of guys in that locker room---and I'm around these guys every day---so I feel pretty good, because I knew we were going to keep fighting in the second half."
From our vantage point it was a solid effort against an incredibly difficult offense to defend, but in giving up over five yards a carry and nearly 500 yards of offense, the defensive line has to take its part of the responsibility.
North Carolina came into this game with something of a disadvantage on defense, as senior linebacker Zach Brown was held out of playing defense as a disciplinary measure.
Although Brown has been reinstated for Saturday at East Carolina, his absence was noticeable on some of those plays when Georgia Tech got on the outside boundary and Brown's speed would have been very helpful.
"It (situation with Brown) was a coach's decision for disciplinary team rules," said Coach Withers after the game. "You're not going to play the whole season with everybody you need, you know. Zach Brown didn't play on defense today. I don't think Zach (not playing) was an issue today."
The one silver lining was that without Brown in the lineup, it gave true freshmen Travis Hughes and Norkeithus Otis an opportunity to play an important role in a significant ACC game.
"I'm glad they (Hughes and Otis) got an opportunity to play. We get to learn a lot about them on this tape, and that's the bottom line," Coach Withers said.
Between them Hughes and Otis combined for seven tackles and a tackle for loss against the Yellow Jackets---and Hughes was particularly solid on several plays in his first career start.
"He (Hughes) did a great job fitting in for Zach, but we're going to need Zach, because it's a long season. Hopefully he can get his act together, whatever it is, and we'll be all right," said junior linebacker and defensive captain Kevin Reddick.
"I don't think it necessarily hurt us (not having Brown). Travis just had to step up. We don't really necessarily say we need him to win games, but when Zach comes back, he'll help the team," Reddick continued.
Reddick was pleased with the way UNC 'fit gaps' to slow down Tech's running game on its first three possessions---holding them to an early field goal and then a missed field goal and turnover---but UNC was largely unable to capitalize.
"Everybody was fitting (early in the game). Everybody was making the right fits, tackling the ball and chasing the ball. That's basically what was happening," Reddick said. "We've just got to capitalize on that."
As was the case with the UNC defensive linemen, the scheme run by Georgia Tech wound up wearing down the Tar Heel linebackers as well over the course of the game, but Reddick doesn't think that's an excuse for giving up over 300 rushing yards.
"Just being tired, mentally tired, you've got to hold up and not be tired and just tell yourself you can go," Reddick said. "It's tough not getting off the field when it's third (down) and short. Even though they're probably going to go for it when it's fourth and one or two or three."
After UNC's early success against the Yellow Jackets, Georgia Tech scored on three of its last four possessions of the first half, and subsequently got touchdowns on two of its five second half possessions.
As Reddick accurately pointed out, it only takes one guy to be out of position to spring a gap that Georgia Tech can break for a big play.
"Somebody fitting it wrong (is all it takes). That's it. Everybody has got to fit (gaps) it the same every time. Every play, everybody has got to fit it the same way," Reddick said. "Critical plays, critical mistakes. One person misses a fit, and there you go."
While the linebackers did their part on a lot of Carolina's successful stoppages of Georgia Tech's offense, the inconsistency and lack of experience did them no favors in several crucial moments.
Georgia Tech is not known for being a high-caliber passing offense, but they've found ways to catch defenses with their pants down all season so far with a brutal play-action passing game.
Coach Withers was quick to readily admit that the Yellow Jackets burned the Tar Heel secondary with some of the wrinkles they threw into their offensive game plan.
"They (Georgia Tech) schemed against what we do in our secondary. They did a great job now---I'm going to tell you. They watched enough of what you do, because you can't do enough on defense."
Withers claims it was much more difficult for UNC, with its limited number of base defensive schemes, to be able to prepare as thoroughly against Georgia Tech with its extensive number of schemes, formations, variations, and play calls, than it was for Georgia Tech to scheme against Carolina's defense.
"We run maybe three defenses a game when we play. Maybe three. And they see that defense over and over and over (in film study) and they know how to scheme it," Withers said.
The biggest play that caught UNC unaware was the 59-yard scoring pass from GT quarterback Tevin Washington to receiver Stephen Hill in the second quarter.
On that play the Yellow Jackets influenced cornerback Charles Brown to come down on the line of scrimmage, thinking it was a running play.
When that happened, it was the responsibility of safety Brian Gupton to sag back and play the receiver, but when Gupton charged up instead of back, it allowed Hill to race behind him and catch a wide open pass for the touchdown.
"They (GT) were able on the 'quick dive' pass to slip the wideout past the safety (Gupton) that's supposed to overlap," said Coach Withers. "If the safety gets short, touchdown pass."
Later in the game Hill could have had another easy touchdown pass, but he dropped a wide-open ball when UNC again didn't properly cover with the safety.
"I mean, that's what it was. We were short by about three yards (with our safety) on both occasions," said Withers.
"I think we didn't expect them to pass as much as they did. I think that was one of the things they caught us off-guard with," added Coples. "It was a breakdown (on the long pass plays). It kind of frustrates you a little bit, but that's just because you are a defensive player. But we definitely could have defended the pass a little better."
UNC sophomore cornerback Tre Boston was impressed with Washington and the way he guided the Georgia Tech offense.
"He's a good athlete. Their offense that they run, it's made for him to be wide open, pretty much," said Boston of Washington.
Despite some of the breakdowns that caught the secondary unprepared, Boston was pleased with the way the unit fought and largely contained Tech's passing game in the second half.
"We can fight---fight while weary. A lot of us were a little tired, beat up. They were cutting us all day. But we learned how to fight. When our offense tells us, 'Hey, we need the ball back,' we're going to get the ball back for us. And they believe in us as much as we believe in them, so it's just one of those things," Boston said.
The one big letdown late in the game was allowing the Yellow Jackets to score so effortlessly midway through the second half after UNC had tied the game 28-28.
Although the secondary didn't give up any big pass plays on Tech's final scoring drive, the path was cleared on the outside for the 48-yard run by Jones that led to the touchdown.
"There's no deep breaths. We knew as a defense, we wanted to dominate them all day. And when it's 28-28, we feel like we need to get the ball back to our offense again so they needed to score," said Boston. "It wasn't really deflating (after Tech's last touchdown). Again, we gave our offense the ball. It's just one of those things where we've got to believe. If you don't believe, then they can't believe in you."