Surging Georgia Tech visits UNC in ACC Coastal matchup
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Georgia Tech hopes it's finally found its groove. North Carolina has been close — but that's not good enough for the Tar Heels.
The surging Yellow Jackets visit the Tar Heels on Saturday looking to move closer to bowl eligibility and keep alive their longshot hopes in their topsy-turvy division race.
Georgia Tech (4-4, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) has won three of four to move back to .500 after a 1-3 start that put some pressure the Yellow Jackets. Their famed triple-option offense ran all over Virginia Tech last week, rolling up 465 yards rushing in a 49-28 rout of the Hokies.
"We've got a lot to play for," coach Paul Johnson said. "We're still alive in the conference. We're trying to play to get bowl eligible. There's a ton to play for."
For North Carolina (1-6, 1-4), there's no more margin of error. In order to earn bowl eligibility for the first time since 2016, the Tar Heels must win their remaining four games — then find a replacement for the game with UCF that was canceled because of Hurricane Michael, and win that one, too.
They've been close lately, but haven't been able to close out a victory in more than a month.
Since their 37-point loss at Miami, they've lost twice by three points apiece — once in overtime at Syracuse, another when Virginia Tech scored the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left following a critical fumble.
Coach Larry Fedora acknowledged that there's "plenty of frustration.
"We talk about it as a team. We talk about how close we are and the difference between winning and losing and what we need to do," Fedora said. "Nobody's happy with what's going on. Everybody's searching, and everybody's looking at me. I'm the leader of this team, and ... I'm responsible for giving them answers."
Some other things to watch when Georgia Tech visits North Carolina on Saturday:
Johnson says senior captain TaQuon Marshall will start at quarterback while Tobias Oliver also will play after putting up big numbers against the Hokies. Oliver rushed for three touchdowns in his first start at QB. "It doesn't change the game plan," Johnson said. "Tobias has played well whenever he has gone in. I think he has played in every game and he'll play Saturday at some point. It doesn't really change. We don't change a whole lot of what we do depending on who's at quarterback."
Georgia Tech's only pass attempt against Virginia Tech was an incompletion by Oliver. It was the first time since Nov. 26, 1977, when the Yellow Jackets beat Georgia 16-7, that they did not complete a pass. It was the 18th time since 2002 that a FBS had no completions and those teams that did it were 14-4.
FORCED TURNOVERS ON THE RISE
First-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody has produced more forced turnovers for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have forced 17 turnovers this season, including nine interceptions. Their 2017 total through 11 games was only 10. "There are games we've played better than some other games," Johnson said of the adjustment to Woody's 3-4 scheme. "I think overall what we're doing is sound and I think it's repetition and the more they do it the better they'll get at it."
UNC's offense had largely been a mess entering its open date, but the Tar Heels have moved the ball more effectively the past three weeks. They had a season-high 522 yards against Virginia Tech, then had 500 more against Syracuse before sputtering for much of the second half at Virginia. And quarterback Nathan Elliott has four touchdowns with no interceptions in the past two games.
The Tar Heels are in the midst of a major slide that began in the final month of the 2016 season. That team was ranked 15thin the AP Top 25 and had won 18 of 22 games, including a 13-2 record against ACC teams, entering a trip to Duke. But dating to that loss, North Carolina has lost 13 of 18 games and gone 2-13 against league opponents.