CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The team that got overrun at the end by Kansas last week in Lawrence? Those weren’t these Yellow Jackets as driven by this coach. Those were impostors. Here on Saturday we saw … well, let’s let the coach express it.
“The encouraging thing,” Paul Johnson said, “was that we played like Georgia Tech.”
A Georgia Tech game doesn’t have so much a rhythm as a heartbeat, and at the end it’s usually Johnson’s men who have the bigger heart. There will be palpitations en route, most of the due to Tech’s defense or the lack thereof. But these Jackets are accustomed to that by now. They don’t get antsy when they fall behind. They didn’t get antsy here, where they trailed three times in the first half and again in the second.
They just kept fighting, and for once the fight wasn’t all about Johnson’s stylized offense. Though the offense did muster 448 yards, and Joshua Nesbitt did complete three of four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown, and the Tech offense did essentially run North Carolina’s offense off the field. Said Johnson: “I really didn’t feel like they could stop us if we ran the ball three times. Or four times.”
That said, the Tech D — yes, the Tech D — did its bit. It limited North Carolina to seven points over the final 40-plus minutes. Granted, the offense did its bit, hogging the ball for 32 of those 4o-plus minutes, but on its final five possessions Carolina managed four first downs (one of those by penalty).
In sum, this wasn’t the Dave Wommack-coached defense that ould start badly and get worse. This one improved as it went. Said Al Groh, the new coordinator: “When players had to make plays, they made ‘em.”
It would be wrong to say Groh’s group figured it all out Saturday. There were enough defensive howlers to stamp this as a vintage Tech game. Said Johnson: “The first half it looked like nobody was going to stop anybody.” But the Jackets had a chance to lose this vital game after Nesbitt sailed a pitchout past Roddy Jones late in the third quarter, and Brad Jefferson’s recovery of T.J. Yates’ fumble on Carolina’s first snap saved the day.
Said Groh: “Our personality, our identity, our brand is to play with energy , toughness and passion on every play.”
Yes, it’s a brand in progress. But there’s no question that the overall Tech persona — starting with Johnson and trickling down through the indomitable Nesbitt — isn’t so much skill (though there’s much of that on hand) as stubbornness. Said Nesbitt: “We go into every game with the mindset that it’s going to be a dogfight.”
That Tech team that lost to Kansas? Those weren’t the real Jackets. We saw the real Jackets here for the first time this season, and they looked pretty much the way they did a year ago. And in 2009 they were ACC champs.
By winning here, the 2010 team has given itself a chance to repeat after itself. The schedule remains difficult — the Jackets still must travel to Clemson and Virginia Tech — but this date at Kenan Stadium always loomed as the key early test. It didn’t matter how many Tar Heels were missing due to suspension; to be taken seriously again, Tech had to win this game. It did.
“It’s too early to write an ending for this season,” Johnson said, but the ending now has a chance to be brighter than if Tech went 1-2 over its first three games. This was a conference game, a division game, a statement game. And the Jackets’ statement was: “We might not have Derrick Morgan or Demaryius Thomas or Jonathan Dwyer or Morgan Burnett anymore, but we’re still Georgia Tech.”