Despite sitting second-to-last in the ACC Coastal Division standings, Georgia Tech (4-5, 3-3 ACC) still has an opportunity to earn a berth in the ACC Championship with just three weeks remaining in the regular season. The Yellow Jackets need two more wins to simply become bowl eligible and most pundits agree wins over North Carolina and Duke over the next two weeks are imperative as Georgia Tech wraps up the regular season at No. 5 Georgia on Nov. 24.
Georgia Tech has yet to secure a win over a team with a winning record in 2012. This includes a 59-3 drubbing of FCS school Presbyterian, as well as conference victories over the likes of Virginia, Boston College and Maryland. The season hit rock bottom following three straight losses to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson in which Georgia Tech surrendered an average of 46 points per game and over 573 yards per game. The Monday following the loss to Clemson, defensive coordinator Al Groh was fired.
Since the dismissal of Groh, the Yellow Jackets have won two of three games, including blowout wins over Boston College and Maryland. The defense is allowing just over 23 points per game and the offense has only turned the ball over three times.
Entering the season, senior quarterback Tevin Washington (55-of-93, 901 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT; 120 car, 511 yards, 16 TD) was expected to pick up where he left off in 2011 as one of the more explosive running quarterbacks in the country. However, as the 2012 season progressed, freshman and Durham, N.C. product Vad Lee (12-of-24, 277 yards, 2 TD; 47 car, 322 yards, 6 TD) has earned more playing time. Last week against Maryland, Washington and Lee rotated every two series. Washington led the Yellow Jackets to touchdowns on two of four possessions while Lee navigated touchdown drives on three of five possessions.
Head coach Paul Johnson has yet to make a decision on who will start Saturday against the Tar Heels, but regardless of who gets the nod, Georgia Tech will likely give both quarterbacks significant playing time. Washington sat out practice on Monday after getting banged up a bit against Maryland, but was expected to practice on Tuesday.
We'll see how practice goes this week," Johnson said. "But I thought they both did some good things (against Maryland). They graded out not very far apart, two or three points apart."
As usual, the Yellow Jackets and its option-attack offense rank among the nation's leaders in running the football. Georgia Tech ranks fourth in the country and leads the ACC in rushing (318.22 ypg). This is actually the lowest a Johnson-led Yellow Jacket offense has ranked nationally in running the football since 2008, his first year in Atlanta. Overall, the Yellow Jackets offense ranks 34th in total offense (449.11 ypg) and 33rd in scoring (34.89 ppg).
Defensively, Georgia Tech has improved from early season struggles and currently fields a defensive unit that ranks in the middle of the country in most statistical categories. Without 2011 second-team All-ACC linebacker Julian Burnett in the lineup this season due to a neck injury, Georgia Tech currently ranks 61st in total defense (394.67 ypg) and 66th in scoring defense (28 ppg). This is a dramatic improvement from three weeks ago when the Yellow Jackets ranked 89th and 83rd in each category, respectively.
"I think what you do is you play two groups and as soon as the first one is busy, then the next one is ready to go in. It'd be impossible to go any faster than that so you replicate it the best you can. Now are you going to get the quality of it? That's the issue. The hard part is having enough linemen to do that, but we can certainly rep two groups of skilled guys. They're not real big on changing personnel; they just try to get a lot of snaps. What you hope is the nature of the way we play will frustrate them a little bit, too. You break down the UNC-N.C. State game, both teams had the ball 20 times. By contrast, you go to our Maryland game, they had it nine times; the week before we had it eight times. It's going to fall somewhere in the middle. I would doubt there's going to be 20 possessions. If we could get off to a good start and get that thing slowed down, maybe they don't want to go as fast." – Johnson on North Carolina's up-tempo offense
"It is assignment discipline. You have got to know your job and you've got to do your job and you don't worry about doing somebody else's job. You just do your job and it sounds easier than it is, I can assure you, because it's hard to duplicate the speed of a game in practice. First of all, your scout team guys are not going to be good at running the triple option offense and they're not going to be nearly as fast doing it so you get into the game and usually there is a period early, especially, that your defense has to adjust to the speed of the game of defending it." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora on how to defend Georgia Tech's option-offense
Matchups to Watch
Georgia Tech's Rushing Offense vs. UNC's Run Defense
It is difficult to identify one specific matchup that may lead to success in defending an option-style offense like that of Georgia Tech. It is truly a team effort that requires solid play from each of the three levels of a defense. The defensive line must maintain its gap assignments and keep the play moving to the outside as the linebackers and defensive backs move laterally and downfield to make the tackle.
This will not be the first time Fedora and co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch have faced an option offense. Last fall, Fedora and Disch led Southern Mississippi to a 63-35 victory over Navy, which runs a similar style offense to Georgia Tech. The Midshipmen were able to rack up 421 yards on the ground, but managed to score on just three of six trips inside the twenty-yard line against Disch's Southern Mississippi defense.
Five Yellow Jackets have rushed for over 250 yards this season, including senior Orwin Smith (54 car, 523 yards, 4 TD), who averages 9.7 yards per carry. Fellow senior Washington ranks fourth in the country and first in the ACC with 16 rushing scores.
Keep an eye on Georgia Tech guard Omoregie Uzzi, who is expected to be a high draft pick this spring. The All-American will likely see a lot of time against North Carolina's Sylvester Williams, who is tied for fifth in the ACC in sacks (5) and sixth in tackles-for-loss (9.5).
Overall, the Tar Heel defense leads the ACC and ranks fourth nationally in tackles-for-loss (7.89 per game). In addition to Williams, senior linebacker Kevin Reddick (12) and junior defensive end Kareem Martin (12.5) both rank in the top-four in the conference in stops behind the line of scrimmage.
"Well I think the reason usually for them having a lot of tackles for losses, is they stun a lot, slant, but they also get guys in long-yardage situations, so what you have to do is stay out of long yardage stuff," Johnson said.
In order for the Tar Heels to slow down the Georgia Tech offense, the secondary must step up as well. At times, the North Carolina secondary has struggled against the pass. However, the defensive backs have also proven they can tackle the ball carrier, which will be vital on Sunday. Just three weeks ago against Duke, safety Tre Boston recorded 17 tackles. Cornerback Jabari Price leads North Carolina in tackles (63) while Boston is second (60).
The circumstances will certainly be different on Saturday. Rather than bringing down wide receivers in open space, the secondary will need to fight through blocks in order to take down bigger and stronger backs. However, the secondary cannot become too glued in on the run as Georgia Tech can throw the ball over the top if you are not careful.
Last season, only Duke surrendered more passing yards to Washington than North Carolina in ACC play. Washington was 10-of-14 for184-yards, 1 TD and 1 INT in a 35-28 win over North Carolina. It would have been more had Stephen Hill not dropped a wide-open pass in the middle of the field.
Georgia Tech's Run Defense vs. UNC's Gio Bernard
Until a team proves it can stop Bernard, this is likely to be the key matchup for any team facing North Carolina. In the past four games, all against ACC opponents, Bernard rushed for 717 yards and six touchdowns. Overall, Bernard (126 car, 930 yards, 10 TD) leads the ACC in rushing yards and ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards per game (132.9).
However, the statistics do not stop there. Bernard is also a threat catching the ball and returning punts, as he demonstrated two weekends ago against N.C. State when Bernard scored the game-winning touchdown on a 74-yard punt return with 13 seconds remaining in the game. He ranks third in the country in all-purpose yards (214 per game) and has scored three touchdowns through the air and two on punt returns.
"You've got to tackle for one thing," Johnson said. "He's the kind of guy if you miss a tackle; he's going to go the distance. He's got great speed. You have to try to rally around him. The first guy's not going to get him down every time so you have to keep the guys coming. Clearly he's the key to their success. Their tight ends have played well and they've got some great receivers, but I think he's the key."
Bernard, along with quarterback Bryn Renner (195-of-312, 386 yards, 18 TD, 6 INT) and a veteran offensive line, are a big reason why the Tar Heels own the 16th ranked scoring offense(39.44 ppg) and total offense (487.78 ypg) in the country.
Last season against Georgia Tech, Bernard had a breakout game in which he ran for 155 yards and two scores on just 17 carries. This year, the Georgia Tech defense attempted to mix in new schemes, including a 4-3 look to go along with its traditional 3-4 base defense. However, following Groh's dismissal in early October, new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly has condensed the system.
"What I've see is they've probably simplified," Fedora told reporters on Monday. "It's not like they're doing a whole lot different than what they were doing, but it looks like they're a little simpler, looks like they're just letting their guys play, their guys know what they're doing and they're just playing and playing hard."
The freedom has allowed Georgia Tech to improve from the 70th ranked rush defense (163.33 ypg) following the loss to Clemson on Oct. 6 to the 51st ranked rush defense (148.78 ypg) currently. Since Kelly took over the defense, the Yellow Jackets have surrendered slightly over 119 rushing yards per game and just 88 yards per game against ACC opponents.
While the improvement is obvious on paper, North Carolina presents Georgia Tech a much greater challenge than its past three opponents, Boston College, BYU and Maryland. Of those three teams, none rank in the top half of the country in rushing. In fact, the running game of the Eagles and Terrapins both rank amongst the bottom 10 in the country.