The smirk returned Saturday.
After his team buried North Carolina under an avalanche of yards, touchdowns and difference-making plays, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson gave praise to the Yellow Jackets’ next opponent, Duke. The Blue Devils are much improved, Johnson said, and a very good team.
“Plus, they’ve had two weeks to get ready,” he said. “We all know how that works.”
The remark referred to the oft-repeated belief that opponents receive a considerable benefit when they have an extra week to prepare for Tech’s spread-option offense. Opposing coaches have routinely credited it when they’ve won, but it irks Johnson and he likely took no small pleasure in providing contrary evidence Saturday. North Carolina had an extra week to get ready for Tech, but the Tar Heels gave up the most they had ever allowed in a home game in the Jackets’ 68-50 victory in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“Practices were good,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “If I saw that coming, I probably wouldn’t have shown up (Saturday).”
Johnson’s post-game demeanor, bragging on his players and cracking wise, reflected yet another change of course in Tech’s improbable season. It began with an overtime loss to Virginia Tech that was somehow both stunning and encouraging, appeared to lift off with a shearing of Virginia, then collapsed in consecutive losses to Miami, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson.
The Jackets have now won three of their last four and, with quarterback Vad Lee’s vibrant play Saturday, may have finally found traction.
“We really needed this,” A-back Orwin Smith said. Only a couple weeks ago, he continued, players’ heads were down. “Now guys feel like they can win, and that’s what we need. As long as guys believe, I feel like we can get some things done.”
More than a few things got done Saturday, an afternoon of firsts and mosts, starting with the ACC record for most combined points in a conference game.
Tech set school records for most points in an ACC game, most players to rush for a touchdown in an ACC game (five), most opponent kickoff return yards (267) and most kick return yards by an individual (Jamal Golden, 230). The Tar Heels set ACC records for most kickoff returns (11) and most points by a losing team. Tech’s 68 points were also the most ever scored on North Carolina in a conference game.
“Too bad we missed that two-point conversion,” Johnson said.
More pertinent to Tech’s season, the Jackets achieved a meaningful “first since.” This season, the fourth quarter has been a platform for opponents to bolt the game down, stage comebacks or at least tighten the score. Saturday, Tech locked the game up in the final 15 minutes. The Jackets outscored North Carolina 10-7 in the fourth, scoring the final 10 points after the Tar Heels drew to within 58-50 on an interception returned for a touchdown in the first minute of the quarter.
It was the first time that Tech had outscored its opponent in the fourth quarter of a game that was within two scores at the end of the third since its 45-35 win over N.C. State in the fifth game of the 2011 season. The Jackets did it, no less, against a UNC team that had outscored its opponents 75-28 in the fourth quarter before Saturday.
Lee led the two scoring drives in the fourth, accounting for 99 of the two possessions’ 156 yards either by run or pass. He riddled the Tar Heels throughout the afternoon, accumulating 281 yards of total offense and accounting for three touchdowns. Lee, who came in as planned for starter Tevin Washington in the third series of the game and thereafter never left, also converted six of Tech’s nine third downs with runs or passes.
“I just wanted to execute the offense to the fullest, to the best of my ability,” Lee said. “I think we did that (Saturday).”
The win sets up a potential “first since” – Tech’s first ACC Coastal Division title since 2009. Tech will play Duke at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, televised on ESPNU. A berth in the ACC championship game may be on the line.
The Jackets will go to Charlotte with a win over the Blue Devils and one of three scenarios. One is Miami losing to Duke Nov. 24. Should Miami beat the Blue Devils, the second is North Carolina beating Virginia and Maryland to finish in a three-way tie with Miami and Tech and then Virginia finishing in fourth place, which would give Tech a berth in the championship game through the league’s tiebreaker system. The third would require Tech to beat Duke and Miami to self-impose a postseason ban as part of its NCAA sanctions.