ATLANTA — Paul Johnson uses phrases like “come out with their
hair on fire” during pregame speeches. This should not come as a
surprise. The old-school mentality is as prevalent in Georgia Tech’s
56-year-old head coach as his never-ending opposition-by-design to the
spread evolution and his attention to details. When a player fails to
execute, a film sessions critique might even include a reference to a
chicken with its head cut off.
But this exact phrase is the one
David Sims, the Yellow Jackets’ redshirt senior running back who
accounted for two touchdowns in his team’s 28-20 come-from-behind win
against North Carolina, remembers his coach using in preparation for the
Tar Heels’ uptempo attack.
“We just had to take their best
punch and try to roll with it,” said Sims, who finished with 99 rushing
yards. “We knew that once we got going, it would be hard for them to
His head coach was right on the money, too.
UNC took a comfortable early lead. The Yellow Jackets’ ground-based
offense fumbled four times in the steady rain — six times if including
two other could-be fumbles in the game, one by Vad Lee on a scoring
drive and another by Sims on a touchdown score, two officiating
decisions that (right or wrong) went in Georgia Tech’s favor on the
“We got a couple breaks,” Johnson said after his team
won its conference opener for the fourth time in five seasons. “They
did a good job getting the lead, but I thought the momentum changed when
we were able to take that last drive right before half and go down and
score. … And once we got the lead we found a renewed energy.”
lead did not come until 5:52 remained in the third quarter, a short
run by Lee that finished off a nine-play, 53-yard drive. But by then,
outcome seemed inevitable. How could it not? A poncho-laden, albeit
sparse, crowd provided
some semblance of an atmosphere and close calls seemingly refused to
inhibit Tech’s pursuit of ongoing dominance over their North Carolina
brethren. History was on the Yellow Jackets’ side. If every little thing
went Georgia Tech’s way after UNC took a 20-7 lead, then it was merely a
byproduct of better execution in pivotal moments.
And even so,
what hasn’t gone in the Yellow Jackets’ favor in this one-sided series?
What breaks haven’t positively affected the engineers’ results? Very
little and very few, respectively. Perhaps coming out with one’s hair on
fire simply isn’t enough in this series.
* * *
Carolina’s struggles at Bobby Dodd Stadium stretch back far beyond the
coaching tenures of Larry Fedora and Paul Johnson, back to the late-90s,
a Heisman runner-up, an overtime heartbreaker and a stunned UNC
contingent sitting under the stadium overhang. I should know; I was
there, slowly jostling and filing out into the Atlanta night with my
light blue-clad family members in relative silence as “Ramblin’ Wreck”
chants reverberated off the concrete.
It was Oct. 13, 1999.
that late-night setting, Joe Hamilton might as well have been Joe
Montana — Kelly Campbell the Georgia Tech signal-caller’s Jerry Rice —
to one particular 11-year-old in attendance. It was an impressive
performance, to say the least. After the Tar Heels jumped
out to an early 13-0 lead (regrettably, there’s no evidence of coach
George O’Leary saying any UNC player’s hair was up in flames), Hamilton
led a quick-strike third-quarter
comeback and sealed the deal in overtime, scampering in from six yards
for the 31-24 win.
Georgia Tech, the seventh-ranked team in the
country at the time, was just a little bit better on that night. It had
Hamilton finished the game with 350 total
yards and three scores — he went on to finish second in the stiff-arm
trophy voting to record-breaking Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne that
season — and the Tar Heels have not won in Atlanta since. Saturday
marked the eighth-consecutive loss for North Carolina on Grant Field, a
streak that spans from Carl Torbush to John Bunting to Butch Davis to
The last time a UNC boarded its bus for the six-hour bus
ride back to Chapel Hill with a win, Oscar Davenport was the starting
quarterback and Boogie Nights had been in theaters for a whopping three days.
Those wins have come in various ways for the Yellow
Jackets: They’ve won in gut-wrenching fashion and in dominant
fashion; they’ve won in high-scoring affairs (more common) — last season’s meeting
between the two schools, though it came in Chapel Hill, set the all-time
conference record with 118 points scored as Georgia Tech won 68-50 —
and low-scoring defensive efforts.
The average margin of victory in the
eight victories: Less than nine points.
But Georgia Tech always finds a way.
The Yellow Jackets have won 14 of the past 16 meetings between the two teams.
Saturday afternoon, amidst rain and fog and train engine sound effects, UNC
again jumped out to 13-point lead. The running game was effective, the
passing game was on-target and the Yellow Jackets could not find an
answer for UNC’s Eric Ebron, a 6-foot-4 matchup problem who is gradually separating himself as one
the premier tight ends in the nation. Then, per the usual theme,
Johnson’s triple-option began to impose its will and the defense
tightened its grip.
In the end, Georgia Tech turned around a
slow start into a game in which it dominated time of possession (holding
onto the ball for more than 40 minutes), racking up 428 yards and
converting on nine of its 16 third-down attempts. This is storyline when
these two teams meet in Atlanta. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.
quite a remarkable achievement for the Georgia Tech program as a whole,
considering the two ACC schools compete in the same general tier of the
college football landscape, i.e. beneath the likes of Clemson and
Florida State but above, say, Wake Forest. The two schools’ talent bases
are not that disparate; if anything, UNC has found a little more
success on the recruiting scene over the past decade or so.
had a lot of opportunities to finish the game off and didn’t get it
done,” Fedora said. “Some of it was shooting ourselves in the foot. We
didn’t make every throw we needed to make, and we didn’t make every
block we needed to make.”
Same old song. Georgia Tech’s execution
at home equates to success. Alter coaching staffs, alter rosters and/or
alter the complexion of the game’s action and, still, the same results
UNC gets its next shot to snap the streak in 2015. For context, Joe Hamilton will be 38 years old by that time.