That just happened. Carolina lost to Georgia Tech, 68-50, in football on Saturday. It was a game that could have been mistaken for a round of arcade classic NFL Blitz: big plays, high scoring, big hits, few punts, and nominal defense.
If you're Larry Fedora, what do you say after a performance like that? "It didn't feel near the same as it did the last time we came off that field." It sure didn't. Two weeks ago, Carolina was celebrating a victory over N.C. State for the first time in six years. Saturday, they experienced a fourth straight loss to the Yellow Jackets, who have now beaten the Tar Heels in 13 of the last 15 meetings. "It was a pretty poor feeling, actually," Fedora continued. "We played poorly in all three phases of the game -- offense, defense and special teams. Give Georgia Tech credit for what they accomplished today, because they were the better team today."
The game was a back-and-forth affair throughout the first half, with Carolina taking at 29-28 lead into the intermission thanks to a Tommy Hibbard to Jack Tabb two-point conversion. But a breakdown on special teams led to the Yellow Jackets taking the second-half kickoff back for a score. Carolina answered right back thanks to a brilliant catch-and-run from Giovani Bernard, but Georgia Tech was undaunted. They rattled off 24 straight points to take the lead for good. That sequence included a costly Bryn Renner interception toss and an ill-fated fake punt in Carolina territory.
Still, despite trailing by 22 points midway through the third quarter, the Tar Heels were in the game. A seven play, 68-yard drive culminated in a Quinshad Davis touchdown. Then a pick-six from Tim Scott to open the fourth quarter cut the lead to eight. But the Jackets weren't rattled. They'd put their offense in the capable hands of dynamic redshirt freshman Vad Lee, who directed the attack with aplomb. The Durham native racked up 281 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns.
Following Scott's interception, Georgia Tech did what Georgia Tech does and marched right down the field, going 81 yards on seven plays, finishing with a 22-yard Orwin Smith run to stretch the lead back to 15 and snatch the momentum right back.
All week long, Carolina players preached the importance of assignment discipline on defense. Do your job. Take care of your own responsibilities. Don't get greedy. That, and win the one-on-one battles. And yet on Saturday, the Tar Heel defense was unable to execute.
"It's a big difference, from saying something and then doing it," defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said. "In practice, you make a mistake, but you say, 'I got it, Coach. I know.' But you don't know, because you just made the mistake. When it's game time and that play hits you in the face, you say, 'Aw man, I was supposed to take that guy.' Well, in practice, you took the wrong guy. In the game, you took the wrong guy. Seven-yard gain. Touchdown."
Roy Williams always says that "perfect practice makes perfect." Mistakes made against a scout team, one not built to run the spread option offense throught a season, don't bode well for Saturdays against Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech. "When you make a mistake in practice, it isn't seven points. It isn't a 20-yard gain, it's a redo. You can't redo what you did out there on the field."
Georgia Tech and North Carolina combined for 118 points, the most in ACC history. The Tar Heels gave up the second-most points in school history, and scored the most points they ever have in a loss. But now, the scoreboard is off. The game is over. The record is what it is, and Carolina must bounce back for a quick turnaround and a Thursday trip to Charlottesville to take on a surging Virginia team.
"We're going to find out if we're going to be licking our wounds, or if we're going to fight," Fedora said. "You don't have time to cry about it now. You've got to put it away. It's overwith. It's not going to carry over into this next one. You can't let it, and we've got to be ready."
Carolina will practice Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and you get the feeling that the players are eager to turn the page. "I want to put the pads on so bad. I want to get back to football," Williams said immediately after the loss to Georgia Tech. "I want to enjoy the game again. I didn't enjoy the game today. I'm eager to get out here and move on with our season."Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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