Five things to watch: Can UNC limit Georgia Techs options?

Here are five things to watch as UNC (6-2, 4-1 ACC) tries to reverse that confounding trend against Georgia Tech (5-3, 2-3) in a 12:30 p.m. kickoff

Brett Davis—USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3

Rested and presumably ready for the final stretch run after a much-needed bye week, the North Carolina football team returns to Kenan Stadium for the first time since losing to Virginia Tech in Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 8 Saturday in a game it needs to win to have any chance at repeating its ACC Coastal Division championship. Having an extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech’s confounding triple option offense is always a good thing, or so it would seem. But that hasn’t held true for the Tar Heels. In four previous meetings under coach Larry Fedora, UNC is 0-2 against the Yellow Jackets coming off a bye and 2-0 after just one week of preparation. Here are five things to watch as UNC (6-2, 4-1 ACC) tries to reverse that confounding trend against Georgia Tech (5-3, 2-3) in a 12:30 p.m. kickoff:Dominating third down The Tar Heels have been a noticeably better defensive team over the past two games and a big reason for that has been their ability to get off the field on third down. Miami and Virginia were a combined 7 for 34 on third down conversions, helping UNC limit them to 13 and 14 points each. A big reason for that improvement has been the play of the Tar Heels’ defensive line, which has gotten a major boost from youngsters such as freshman tackle Aaron Crawford, sophomore tackle Jeremiah Clarke and sophomore end Malik Carney. Preventing the opposition from extending drives will be even more important this week, not only because of the personality of Georgia Tech’s offense but it’s coach Paul Johnson’s penchant for going for it on fourth down in short yardage situations.The Yellow Jackets have attempted 15 fourth down conversions during their first eight games. The key to preventing that from happening Saturday is, in Fedora’s words, keeping Tech behind the chains as much as possible. “Winning first and second down and getting negative plays is going to be big in this game,” cornerback Des Lawrence said. “If they’re in third-and-threes, third-and-fours, they’re in a good spot, where they want to be, because they can still go for it on fourth down. We have to win on first and second down. That’s what we’ve done the last two games.” Don’t get caught watching the paint dry UNC’s run defense will be put to the test against a Georgia Tech offense that, while not as explosive as it’s been in past years, still ranks second in the ACC in rushing at 247.6 yards per game. But the Tar Heels can’t get caught up paying too much attention to the ground game. If they do, they run the risk of getting burned through the air by the Yellow Jackets’ Justin Thomas. The senior quarterback did just that to Duke last week by completing 10 of 14 passes for a career-high 264 yards and two touchdowns. UNC got a taste of Thomas’ arm last season after he threw the ball 21 times against it. He completed 12 of those passes for 168 yards and a score. “He’s a good athlete who can run and throw,” Lawrence said. “We prepared for that last year, the same thing we’re doing this year. He’s one of the better quarterbacks they’ve had that can actually throw it. He has a good enough arm to make the plays for their offense.”The Heck with it Even if the week off doesn’t make a difference in defending against the triple option, it at least served the purpose of helping the Tar Heels get healthier than they’ve been in several weeks. While the badly needed rest has helped players like running back Elijah Hood and wide receiver Ryan Switzer recover from nagging bumps and bruises, the most positive impact will be the return of starting right tackle Jon Heck. The All-ACC candidate has been sidelined since suffering a concussion in UNC’s win at Miami on Oct. 15 and his return figures to aid both the Tar Heels’ running game and pass protection for quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Freshman William Sweet has filled in for Heck during his absence. In addition to Heck, UNC’s shorthanded offensive line has also been without starting left guard Caleb Peterson, who is out for the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery. “It helps anytime we get any of our guys back, because we’ve been so fluid with who’s on the field,” Fedora said. “It’s been difficult to get some continuity, so every time we get a guy back it helps us. More than anything, coming out of last week, I hope we’re fresher than we’ve been.”Precious possessions Time of possession has never been a major concern for Fedora and his fast-paced offense and that’s probably a good thing since the Tar Heels rank dead last in the AC