By R.L. Bynum
ATLANTA — Going as far back as the 1977 Final Four, North Carolina teams have made plenty of frustrating visits to Atlanta.
The No. 21 Tar Heels (2–2, 1-2 ACC) added another football game to that painful history Saturday night at the palatial Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where all the good vibes of the previous two weeks didn’t seem to make the trip.
Poor offensive line play returned against a torrid Georgia Tech defense that left few open passing targets for Sam Howell. That led to poor Howell decision-making, eight sacks, three Howell fumbles and 12 tackles for losses. Add in plenty of silly penalties and poor tackling, and it added up to a 45–22 Yellow Jackets victory.
“I’m embarrassed by our play, by our coaching,” UNC coach Mack Brown sad. “We hate it for our fans because the fans have been so good since I’ve been back. This is not who we want to be or who we are.”
Those hopes of a Coastal Division title or a Heisman Trophy were dealt a big blow with an opening-game loss at Virginia Tech, when the Hokies had six sacks. Georgia Tech (2–2, 1–1) delivered a KO to those possibilities in Atlanta.
“I thought it looked similar to Virginia Tech,” Brown said. “Both games we were frustrated as an offense. I thought maybe they got the false impression that after we got down the field so easily last week, it was just gonna be easy now. You can’t do that in this game. You’ve got to learn from it. You’ve got to start over every week. You’ve got to learn and this is a hard lesson.”
It was another 300-plus-yard game for Howell (306 on 25 of 39 passing) with multiple touchdown passes (2) but all of that wasn’t enough. His three fumbles led to 17 Georgia Tech points. He got 182 of his yards after UNC trailed 27–7.
“A lot things went wrong; I’ll just start with me. I could have played better,” Howell said. “Those two fumbles when I was running really hurt us and put our defense in a bad position. All around, we just have stuff to clean up. There’s just so many things that we can do better on the offensive side of the ball and it starts with me.”
It became clear it wouldn’t be the Tar Heels’ night when Howell lost two yards on a fourth-and-1 at the UNC 41 early in the second half.
“That was a big stop for them; credit those guys,” Howell said. “But fourth-and-one with our O-line and our running backs, we should be able to get that.”
Two plays later, quarterback Jeff Sims scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. After Jahmyr Gibbs’ 4-yard touchdown run, the Jackets were rolling with a 20-point lead with 5:39 left in the third quarter.
The defense had its moments early, but there were too many missed tackles. There were several plays where every player wasn’t set when a play started. On one occasion in the second half, linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel had his back to the play and was shouting instructions when the ball was snapped.
The shift to Sims at quarterback for the Jackets seemed to turn the game around.
“Definitely his ability coming in changed up our game plan a little bit,” Gemmel said. “We thought [Jordan Yates] was going to be the guy throughout the game, so we really didn’t game-plan too much for both quarterbacks. We had some stuff for him but we didn’t think he was gonna play the whole second half.”
UNC’s defense couldn’t get off the field after the Tar Heels pulled within two touchdowns.
“Our defense played the best first half they’ve played, holding a team to 83 yards in the first half,” Brown said. “The offense didn’t help them at all with the short fields.”
Carolina’s defense forced Georgia Tech into back-to-back three-and-outs to start the game.
The first ended with a blocked punt by Giovanni Biggers. Myles Murphy snuffed the second possession by sacking Yates on third down for an 11-yard loss. Murphy later drew a holding call on Tech’s third drive to force the Jackets to settle for a 34-yard Brent Cimaglia field goal on the second play of the second quarter.
After the blocked punt, UNC went 40 yards in four plays in only 1:03 to take the lead. Howell repelled five potential tacklers with his best Javonte Williams impression on a 23-yard touchdown run.
On the first UNC play of the second quarter, Jordan Domineck forced a Howell fumble. After Quez Jackson recovered it and returned it 23 yards to the UNC 10, the Heels forced another Cimaglia field goal, this one from 32 yards out, to make it UNC 7–6.
A 48-yard Grayson Atkins field goal was nullified by a false start, and then he missed from 53 yards out with 9:56 left in the first half. Khafre Brown dropped what would have been a touchdown catch earlier in that drive.
Another Howell fumble, this one returned to the UNC 11 by Tech’s Demetrius Knight II, set up an 11-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jeff Sims to give the Jackets a 13–7 lead with 2:41 left in the first half.
“I wanted to see us play better on defense and I thought we’d continue to grow on offense,” Brown said. “We did the first part for the first half and not the second half. And we played pretty good the second half offensively, we just didn’t get the ball very much.”
After the Jackets built a 20-point lead, Howell connected on a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kamari Morales with 3:50 left in the third quarter. But Georgia Tech shoved it back out to 35–14 on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Sims to Malachi Carter with 13:52 left in the game, followed by a two-point conversion pass from Peje’ Harris to Dylan Leonard.
A 64-yard Howell to Emery Simmons pass play set up a 4-yard TD pass to Josh Downs with 11:18 left. A two-point conversion pass to offensive lineman Cayden Baker made it 35–22.
Tech added a 31-yard field goal from Cimaglia and a 50-yard touchdown run by Sims late in the fourth quarter.
UNC cornerback Storm Duck missed the game with a lower-body injury and the school announced before the game that linebacker Tyrone Hopper was out for the season with an upper-body injury.
UNC tries to rebound at home at noon Saturday against Duke (3–1), which beat Kansas on Saturday 53–33.