The chances that No. 21 North Carolina can fulfill the promise of its preseason expectations likely disappeared for good in Mercedes-Benz Stadium after its 45-22 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday.
The Tar Heels (2-2, 1-2 ACC) are staring at a .500 record after their second road loss of the season.
“It’s disappointing,” UNC quarterback Sam Howell said. “You know, no one expected this out of us four games into the season.”
Not against a Georgia Tech team that lost its season-opener to Northern Illinois and had lost nine straight to ranked teams. Not after UNC coach Mack Brown used the words “disappointing” and “embarrassed” because their loss contained the same blueprint from the season-opening setback at Virginia Tech.
The Heels lost the turnover battle.
The Heels gave up a season-high in sacks.
The Heels couldn’t run the ball effectively.
“It looked similar to Virginia Tech, the whole thing, we were frustrated as an offense,” Brown said. “I thought maybe they got the false impression that after they ran up and down the field so easily last week that it was just gonna be easy now. You can’t do that in this game.”
Howell had his second three-turnover game of the season. Against Virginia Tech, Howell threw three interceptions. Against Georgia Tech, Howell had three fumbles, which the Jackets turned into 17 points.
Howell had established himself as a running threat posting back-to-back 100-yard games rushing. The Yellow Jackets exposed how vulnerable he can be as a runner. Two of the fumbles they caused came after Howell had the ball tucked away and was running.
“We knew that was a thing they like to do, they like to tackle the football,” said Howell, who finished with eight yards rushing on 16 carries. “They’d rather try to force a fumble than make the tackle. So ball security was a was a real big emphasis for us throughout the week. I just should have done a better job out there.”
Running game woes
UNC had its five returning starters on the offensive line all starting together for the first time this season. That didn’t do much for the Heels’ running game, which finished with a season-low 63 yards rushing.
The game’s turning point highlighted their inability to establish the run.
Three consecutive plays, trailing just 13-7 in the third quarter, Carolina tried to get one yard on its own 41. And for three straight plays they were denied including Howell being dropped for a two-yard loss on fourth-and-1.
“I pulled it, I was trying to make a play and you know they stopped us, so credit those guys,” said Howell, of his read on the play. “But fourth-and-1, we should be confident to be able to go for it every time and have confidence that we can make it.”
Ironically, that’s part of the reason why Brown elected to go for it despite being in UNC territory. He was looking for something to give a bit of a confidence boost for the offense in the second half — especially after the Heels had two fumbles and a missed field goal in the second quarter.
The Heels had easily picked up a first down in the second quarter when they faced a fourth-and-1. And Brown said it would send an “awful message,” to punt in that situation.
“If you go for a second-and-1, a third-and-1, a fourth-and-1 and can’t make it, you’re going to get beat,” Brown said. “I mean, that is really hard not to make and we were able to accomplish that tonight so I knew we were in trouble when we couldn’t do that.”
Turnovers and sacks
They were in trouble as the number of sacks kept increasing to a season-high of eight. That topped the previous high of six sacks at Virginia Tech in the opener.
The trouble just got worse when the Tar Heels defense, which limited the Yellow Jackets to just 81 total yards in the first half, did not get better in the second half as it has been prone to do this season.
GT freshman quarterback Jeff Sims took that turnover on downs and reeled off a 38-yard run to set up the second of his three touchdowns. The stop and score solidified the Jackets’ soaring confidence level, not to mention gave them a 20-7 lead.
Sims came off the bench for the Jackets in the second quarter and still rushed for 128 yards. His 50-yard score in the fourth quarter and his 38-yarder in the third are the two longest runs Carolina has allowed this season. The Heels entered the game having given up just two runs for more than 20 yards in their first three games.
UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said his frustration came from plays where they weren’t lined up properly or had a player or two out of position, which led to big gains.
“I mean we had our (butt) handed to us,” Gemmel said. “Everybody needs to go home look themselves in the mirror and see what they can do extra during the week to get better and be better for the team.”
Carolina joined Florida State and Virginia as the only teams with two losses in conference play. The Heels goal of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division for just the second time ever and first time since 2015, just got that much harder.
Howell said the team doesn’t need to be concerned with any of those things.
“Don’t worry about standings or any of that because the noise on the outside is obviously gonna be very negative for for this team,” Howell said. “So we just got to stick to each other.”
This story was originally published September 26, 2021 7:00 AM.