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Monday Morning Report Card - UNC

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That was fun. Let’s do it again soon.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, and welcome back. I’m no expert when it comes to the scientific method, and I’m far more superstitious than I would like to admit, but I’m in the process of forming a hypothesis - Georgia Tech plays really well when I go to weddings. Selfishly, I wish I could have attended or at least dedicated more time to watching the last two games live. Yes, sometimes I am THAT guy watching the game on my phone at the reception. I’m sorry... kinda. I was at a wedding during the Clemson game, and we almost won. I was at a wedding during the UNC game, and we sent Sam Howell in his fancy Jumpman jersey back to Chapel Hill crying (those uniforms are actually pretty sweet). The sample size is small, I admit. BUT! I will be at a wedding for the Pitt game this Saturday, and I will be at a wedding for the Duke game the following week. If Georgia Tech is 4-2 on October 10th, I may start finding weddings to crash for the rest of the season.

Anyhow - if you’re still reading, I promise I’ll get to the grading soon. I just wanted to tell the internet that I don’t hate fall weddings anymore. There. I said it.

Let’s do this.

Quarterback(s): A+

Although Jordan Yates’ stat sheet is not very eye-popping, he was still an effective game manager early on Saturday. I can’t overstate the importance of his decision-making ability. He was under some pressure early, missed a few targets, and took a sack, but ultimately he protected the ball and kept Georgia Tech in the game. It looked like more of the same in terms of red zone offense after failing to convert TDs twice in the first half, but the good news is we may have found an answer...

The story of Saturday’s offense is Mr. Jeff Sims. What a way to bounce back after being sidelined for a few weeks. I know there was injury involved, but he could have played the prior two weeks according to coaches. Instead of sulking after not getting the start again, he came in when his number was called and threw for 112 yards on 10/13, ran for 128 yards on 10 carries, and scored 4 TD’s (1 pass, 3 rush). With Sims at the helm, the offense scored three touchdowns on its first three trips to the red zone.

Oh... and he never turned the ball over. Not once.

Running Backs: B+

The running back group continues to produce positive results week after week. I’ll give you the stats, but just know that these are incorrect because Dontae Smith WAS NOT DOWN!!!

Between Gibbs, Mason, and Smith, the group rushed for 130 yards on 27 carries and added an additional 17 yards through the air on 4 receptions. Really, that could should be 75 yards through the air after a phantom whistle was blown on a jet sweep with about nine and a half minutes left in the game. Smith caught the touch pass and broke a few tackles before planting his hand in the ground to stay off the turf. He almost certainly would have scored, adding another touchdown to the group’s total. Gibbs plowed his way into the end zone on a 4-yard score earlier in the second half.

Regardless, averaging 4.8 yards per carry against a defense that only gave up 24 yards on 22 carries against Virginia last week is a good sign if you’re into the whole comparison thing.

Wide Receivers/TEs: B

Although the offensive highlight of the game came from a Malachi Carter touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the overall stats here aren’t that overwhelming. When you consider this UNC team allowed over 550 passing yards last week, I was hoping the Tech receivers would be able to find some more open space and beat man coverage a little more often. That being said, when you only throw the ball 19 times, it’s hard to put up video game numbers. For reference, GT threw the ball 27, 23, and 34 times in its first three games, respectively.

I’m still very impressed by the downfield blocking we’re seeing from this group. There were a few explosive plays by Sims and the RBs that undoubtedly were helped by the receivers’ ability to occupy the secondary’s attention and then get hands on a man and keep them away from the ball carrier.

Let’s watch Malachi’s touchdown again. I think he floated in the air for 10 yards. Track & Field Coach Grover Hinsdale should see if he wants to do the long jump.

Offensive Line: B+

Feels a little weird, but I have to do it. When your running backs are averaging 4.8 yards per carry, your QB is averaging 12.8 yards per carry, and you go for 250+ on the ground as a whole, you’re doing something right. Not to mention, of Tech’s FBS opponents so far in 2021, UNC had the least sacks (1) and the least TFLs (5).

The Tech offense was able to stay on schedule for the majority of Saturday’s battle, and they put together an impressive 7-minute drive in the fourth quarter to ice the game. That doesn’t happen without a strong performance in the trenches.

Total Offense: A

394 total yards, ~70% completion rate (including Yates, Sims was over 80%), 6.1 total yards per carry, 45 points scored, a much improved red zone attack, limited penalties, and zero turnovers. Need I say more?

This game looked and felt a lot like the Louisville game in 2020, except it was against a better opponent. The bad guys get control early, they turn the ball over a few times, we don’t, then all of a sudden you look up and we’re winning by 3 scores. If we get this version of Jeff Sims for the remainder of the season, I’ll go to two weddings a week...

Secondary: B

Coming into this game, the UNC passing attack was regarded as one of the most dangerous in the country, holding the 3 spot offensively in the SP+. Against Tech, Sam Howell threw for 306 yards and 2 TDs. Before Saturday, he was averaging 289 yards and 3 TDs per game, largely skewed by a dud of a performance in Week 1. So, while he did “get his”, the Tech secondary did a pretty solid job limiting explosive plays and winning matchups.

There was a play early that beat Tre Swilling deep, but luckily the juice from playing in front of a limited capacity crowd at the Benz was a little too much for ol’ Heisman Howell as he overthrew his WR. Take that play away, and the 63-yard dime that he threw to Emery Simmons in the fourth quarter, and the UNC passing attack was kept mostly in check. For example, Josh Downs, the Tar Heels’ explosive slot receiver from Gwinnett County, was held to just 53 yards. In the first three games of this season, he went for 123, 73, and 203. Jaylon King may have had something to do with that... After a big hit halfway through the first quarter, Downs had to head to the sideline for a few plays to gather his thoughts.

In the Age of Targeting, this was about as perfect as it gets.

Linebackers: A+

Charlie Thomas better get First Team All-ACC. Hell - throw him on the Bednarik Award Watch List. Yeah I’m biased, at least I’m admitting it, and that’s whole point of this blog. We’re Tech fans. He had 8 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss. This guy, along with Quez Jackson and Ace Eley, continues to give offenses trouble. Quez and Charlie each had a fumble recovery and finished as the top two tacklers in the game. Eley wasn’t too far behind, finishing fourth on the team.

Sam Howell is dangerous on the ground, as well, and aside from his first quarter TD (which should be shown as a “How Not To Tackle” video in Pee Wee Football leagues across America) he was a non-factor in the scrambling category. On the whole, UNC only ran for 63 total yards. That’s a giant step back from the 392 rushing yards they put up against Virginia last week. Also, I’m going to pretend Demetrius Knight scored that touchdown... who hasn’t tripped walking into the end zone at some point in their life?

Defensive Line: A+

All of the impressive statistics - the 63 total rushing yards, the 8 sacks, the 13 tackles for loss, the three forced fumbles - are a product of trench ownership by this group. Eight different defensive lineman recorded tackles. Five different defensive lineman recorded tackles for loss. Three different defensive linemen forced a fumble. This was a group project, and nobody was piggy-backing off the smart kid.

That’s three fairly dominant performances in a row, and I think the Tech front seven can now be called one of the team’s strengths. Who would’ve thunk it...

Total Defense: A+

The 45 points put up by the Tech offense is impressive, sure, but it wouldn’t have been enough in two out of UNC’s previous three matchups. This win was a defensive win, and it was against a legitimate offense. The Yellow Jackets now have a +5 turnover margin on the year, and although that has a lot to do with the offense protecting the ball more, the defense has now forced at least one turnover in each game so far this season. We’re seeing improvement each week, as well, at all three levels.

Third down defense this week wasn’t necessarily world-beating, but it was enough, holding UNC to under 50% on conversions. The defense also held strong on two fourth downs, essentially forcing two more turnovers in key moments of the game. This unit’s confidence is continuing to build as Tech makes its way through conference play, and that is a really good thing to see.

Special Teams: B-

Whereas Clemson fans have been spoiled by the likes of Trevor Lawrence (clearly DJU isn’t the guy this year), we have been spoiled by Sir Pressley Harvin III. This game would have been more of a blowout had Tech not given up a blocked punt early in the first quarter. David Shanahan did have one boot of 53 yards, but he has yet to pin an opposing offense inside their own 20 this season. Coverage remains solid on both punt and kickoff, and Cimaglia was perfect for the third straight game (3/3 on FG, 4/4 on XP).

Coaching: A

Why not? This could have easily been a let-down game. I know... Tech didn’t win the Clemson game, but the team fought as hard as they could have and then had to turn around and prepare for a completely different threat the following week. Going back to the curriculum analogy, this would be like preparing for a Physics exam one week, then a Human Anatomy exam the next. The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Clemson is a run-first, read option, defensive powerhouse, and UNC is an explosive, pass-happy, offensive juggernaut. The coaches and the leaders in the locker room clearly kept the team focused and confident heading into another tough week.

From a scheme perspective, it looked like we backed out of the 4-2 on defense quite a bit and showed Sam Howell a few different looks up front, very similar to the Clemson game. I felt like the defense brought more pressure, as well, but a lot of the sacks were coverage sacks (credit to the secondary). Offensively, play-calling was balanced, favoring the run once Tech got the lead. That 7-minute drive in the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty. Of the twelve plays on that drive, nine of them were runs. In the red zone, Patenaude was able to keep the UNC defense on its heels as it appeared we took a hurry-up style, run-first approach. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand that you want to run the clock when you have the lead, especially when you’ve established a push at the line of scrimmage, but we’ve all seen games where coaches fail to understand that.

“You don’t have to be Stonewall Jackson to know you don’t wanna fight in a basement.”

Final note - the decision to play Sims was clearly the right one as it sparked the offense’s best performance of the season. I think it was handled the right way, as well, as Yates showed incredible support for his teammates throughout the remainder of the game. Credit to the coaching staff for keeping that QB room one that builds this team up instead of one that causes friction.

Wrap Up

At weddings, you typically see people that you don’t see very often. Well, we haven’t seen a Georgia Tech performance quite like this in a while. All three phases played very well against a quality opponent, and it showed in the result. The team’s confidence should be high, but we will see how they manage this bit of success as conference play resumes. Pitt has given Tech trouble over the years, so it’s time to get revenge.

As I said to a number of old college buddies after the wedding on Saturday evening, “That was fun. Let’s do it again soon.”

See you next week. Go Jackets!