The Tar Heels will look to get things back on track Saturday in Atlanta after last week’s loss to Virginia that threw a wrench in a great start to the 2023 season. They will have to overcome the challenge of a Georgia Tech team that is inconsistent but has owned them, especially on the road, in the last 20 years. A win here would get the Tar Heels back on track to try to make it back to the ACC Championship Game while a loss could send things spiraling out of control.
The Tar Heels need to find themselves again after not looking the part of the team that we saw in the first six games of the season last Saturday against Virginia. Offensively, it all starts with a better gameplan from offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who had a horrendous one against the Cavaliers that stunted the progress of this productive offense. The running game needs to be leaned on with Omarion Hampton, the ACC’s leader in rushing and scrimmage yards, against another team that is struggling to stop the run. The hope is that running the football will open up a passing game that struggled a week ago after a ton of success in the prior few weeks. Drake Maye had a rough night against Virginia, but this is still a guy who has taken a step forward from last season and has the ability to take over games and lead this team to victories. He’ll need more help than he got last week when his pass catchers simply couldn’t hold on to the ball in crucial moments. Tez Walker has simply been outstanding for the team since being deemed eligible, but he needs help from Nate McCollum and J.J. Jones, who have been rather quiet in the past two weeks. They could also use more help from the tight ends, who have been inconsistent throughout the season. The offensive line could be a bit of a mystery with the injury issues that the group was dealing with the other night. Both starting tackles, Diego Pounds and Spencer Rolland, were in and out of the game multiple times the other night and guard Willie Lampkin was also hobbled with what appeared to be a right leg injury. The team needs this group to be as close to full strength to continue what has been a solid season to this point for that group.
On defense, the team needs to solve their inconsistencies in run defense. It all starts up front where they got pushed around by a less-than-stellar offensive line for Virginia. The edge rushers have been much more productive this season getting after the quarterback on passing downs, but they have been unable to hold the edge on run downs far too often. The interior of the unit had two really strong performances against Syracuse and Miami, but reverted to their early season struggles with a rough showing this past weekend. Luckily, the Tar Heels still have one of the best linebacker duos in the country to pick them up to some extent. Cedric Gray comes in off of a career performance last week and Power Echols has been playing very well as of late, as well. The defensive backfield is much improved from last season with Alijah Huzzie and Armani Chatman blending in well with the group that has shown drastic improvement.
The Tar Heels special teams remain a gigantic mess. Not only do the struggles in kick coverage continue, but the team now has a major problem at punter with Ben Kiernan out for the season. Tom Maginness had a solid showing against Miami but had a rough night against Virginia leading to Cole Maynard replacing him late in the game. Now they have to figure out who will handle those duties and possibly the kickoff duties with Liam Boyd questionable with an upper-body injury. Right now, it’s just about making sure special teams doesn’t hurt you the way it did last week.
The Yellow Jackets are one of the most confusing teams in college football this season. They have a big win over Miami on the road and nearly pulled the upset over Louisville in the season opener, but they have losses to Bowling Green and Boston College at home. Offensively, the team is much improved from last year. It all starts with quarterback Haynes King, who has been unlocked after transferring over from Texas A&M in the offseason. Not only has he had a strong year through the air, but he is the conference’s leading rusher amongst quarterbacks. He combines with the backfield duo of Jamal Haynes and Trevion Cooley to form a dangerous running game that the Tar Heels have to find a way to slow down. The pass catching group for the Yellow Jackets is a very balanced one with four different receivers over 240 yards already this season. The offensive line might be the most improved element of the team anchored by Joe Fusile at the left guard spot.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets haven’t had nearly the same success. The defensive line has Kyle Kennard, who has had a great season off the edge, but outside of him no one else has really been able to get much push up front. The linebackers haven’t been much better so far this season, but Paul Maola does lead the team in tackles for loss and is a solid player for them in the middle. The secondary is the strength of this unit led by an outstanding corner tandem of Kenan Johnson and KJ Wallace. At safety, the team has an outstanding trio with Clayton Powell-Lee, Jaylon King and LaMiles Brooks all making huge impacts so far this year.
The Yellow Jackets boast a very solid special teams unit. The return games aren’t exactly amongst the nation’s best, but they are solid and will get the job done. Punter David Shanahan is one of the best in the conference and Aidan Birr has been really good since taking over for Gavin Stewart earlier this year.
Off. PPG: 35.9 (T-17th)
Off. PYPG: 321.3 (10th)
Off. RYPG: 178.4 (41st)
Off. TYPG: 499.7 (5th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 50.0 (T-12th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 41.0 (T-66th)
Sacks Allowed: 18.0 (T-92nd)
Def. PPG: 22.4 (47th)
Def. PYPG: 240.4 (T-91st)
Def. RYPG: 130.1 (52nd)
Def. TYPG: 370.6 (66th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 37.0% (59th)
Tackles for A Loss: 40.0 (T-85th)
Sacks: 18.0 (T-41st)
Interceptions: 10 (T-10th)
Turnover Margin: +8 (T-9th)
Penalties Per Game: 6.4 (T-83rd)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 63.6 (114th)
Off. PPG: 29.7 (T-57th)
Off. PYPG: 265.0 (T-42nd)
Off. RYPG: 169.1 (T-50th)
Off. TYPG: 434.1 (36th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 44.4% (T-27th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 36.0 (T-42nd)
Sacks Allowed: 7.0 (T-11th)
Def. PPG: 30.3 (T-104th)
Def. PYPG: 225.0 (67th)
Def. RYPG: 227.2 (132nd)
Def. TYPG: 452.7 (125th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 44.8% (113th)
Tackles for Loss: 32.0 (T-117th)
Sacks: 12.0 (T-108th)
Interceptions: 8 (T-30th)
Turnover Margin: +1 (T-55th)
Penalties Per Game: 5.9 (T-61st)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 50.7 (T-53rd)
Keys to the Game
Come Out Ready
This has been a big issue for the Tar Heels, especially on the road against Georgia Tech, but it is a non-negotiable in this game. The team should be motivated to prove that last week was a fluke and that they aren’t going to fall apart like they did a year ago after a bad loss ironically to Georgia Tech. That game should also serve as a bit of an extra push and allow the Tar Heels to start fast in a game that could turn into a track meet.
Run the Damn Ball
The wording may seem a bit strong here but it is needed after last week. The Yellow Jackets are the second-worst rushing defense in the country and the gameplan from Chip Lindsey has to be to come out and run the ball early and often until the Yellow Jackets defense proves they can stop it. Omarion Hampton leads the ACC in rushing yards and scrimmage yards for a reason and it’s time to use him like it even if it means that the passing game has a quiet night.
Win Up Front on Defense
With what we just talked about, I feel confident that the team can win up front on offense. Defensively, it’s a different story. This defensive line needs to step up and hold its own against a Georgia Tech offensive line that is much improved if they want to slow down another run game that has the capability of gashing them on the ground like so many others have this season. The interior of the unit has to fight, but more than anything, the team needs to do a better job at sealing the edge.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), Jacolbe Cowan (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Ben Kiernan (lower body), Kobe Paysour (lower body), George Pettaway (redshirt), Julien Randolph (lower body)
QUEST- Ryan Coe (lower body), Liam Boyd (upper body)
OUT- Leo Blackburn (knee), Jamie Felix (undisclosed), D.J. Moore (arm), Sylvain Yondjouen (knee)
QUEST- Chase Lane (undisclosed), Eric Singleton Jr. (illness)
Location: Bobby-Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, GA
Time: 8:00 PM
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)