This past Saturday went more or less the way you thought it should if you’re a Georgia Tech fan, as the Yellow Jackets ground North Carolina down and thinned the Tar Heels out like a blacksmith would pound metal into shape.
Tech whipped UNC, 33-7, by piling 403 rushing yards on the Tar Heels as if they were mere tackling dummies and while head coach Paul Johnson remains a tad irked — see two more lost fumbles — the design and intent of his stylized offense has perhaps never been more clear than in this season.
The goal: water board the opponent, drip by drip.
Perhaps best of all, the Jackets (3-1, 2-0 ACC) imposed their plan even as improvisation was required along an offensive line striped in M*A*S*H* gear at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The Jackets gave an unusual look in demonstrating that you don’t have to be good every time but if you’re a great ball hog a couple times, that’ll get the job done.
Tech had the ball five times in the first half and went three-and-out on three.
But the other two drives flattened UNC.
After the Jackets went 18 plays for 90 yards and a TaQuon Marshall touchdown in the first quarter and 17 plays for 74 yards and a field goal in the second quarter, North Carolina was effectively finished though trailing just 10-0.
The Tar Heels’ defense was gassed in a first half where the Jackets ran 43 plays and held the ball for 21:35 to North Carolina’s 8:25.
“With our offense, the other side is going to get tired and once they start getting tired, we start getting a lot more movement and more guys down to the ground so big plays can happen,” Marshall said after rushing 27 times for 137 yards and the score.
That’s exactly what happened.
The second half was much more lopsided than the 23-7 scoring margin only because the Jackets fumbled the ball away twice.
Those were the rocks in the salad.
Otherwise, Georgia Tech scored every time it had the ball, finding the end zone three times and adding a field goal.
Big plays were normal after intermission, when the Jackets rushed for 247 of their 403 yards, averaging 8.5 yards per tote. In the third quarter, KirVonte Benson went 63 yards for a score and Marshall added a 65-yard jaunt.
While the passing game was no great shakes, it was better in the second half, when Marshall completed 3-of-4 passes for 34 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver Ricky Jeune. Marshall was sacked three times in the first half but not once in the second.
Frankly, it was no shock that the already short-staffed Tar Heels (1-4, 0-3) were several steps slow down the stretch.
“No doubt,” said North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora. “The defense played 44 snaps in the firsts half, so there was no doubt they were going to end up wearing down . . . you can’t be out there 76 snaps against that offense and expect not to be worn down at the end of the game.”
That’s what Johnson intends.
So, Will Bryan, who opened the season at right guard was at left tackle. When right guard Shamire Devine went down with an upper-body injury, Bryan moved to right guard and third-year sophomore Bailey Ivemeyer took over at left tackle.
“We went into the game . . . with six offensive linemen,” Johnson said. “When Shamire went down, that left us with five and so we had to move them around.
“We finally put a freshman in there at the end, Connor Hansen. He’s going to have to play because not only did we have Andrew Marshall and Jahaziel out we also had Brad Morgan out, who was the third guard.”
North Carolina fooled the Jackets for a while early, shifting their defensive fronts shortly before the ball was snapped.
“We had some trouble adjusting to the defenses. They kept changing fronts on us before the snaps,” said sophomore left guard Parker Braun. “It took a while for us to adjust to that. Once we did, I think we found success.”
Johnson hasn’t been happy with the wide run game and Marshall admitted earlier this season that he’s been sometimes hesitant to pitch the ball on options plays. He also said more recently that he better trusts that option. And he pitched early on Saturday.
On Georgia Tech’s second drive, he pitched to Benson for a 10-yard gain wide left and to A-back Qua Searcy for a 13-yard gain, also wide left.
Tech would convert four third downs on that drive, all on Marshall runs, including a third-and-13 where the Jackets went option left and TaQuon cut the ball up inside the tackle slot for 20 yards.
It’s not like the Jackets failed to run the ball well in the first half, when they rushed a whopping 37 times for 156 yards (4.2 average).
When you’re not a passing team (and Tech is not), yet you possess the ball for long periods of time, chances are that sooner or later you’re going to become a big-play team because the opposing defense is going to tap out.
That’s what happened against North Carolina, when Benson rushed 18 times for 130 yards and not one negative-yardage play.
“Having that much time on the field is going to wear down any defense . . . I know defenses are not prepared to stay on the field . . . it did wear them down, and we just took advantage of it,” Benson said. “That’s the way our offense is designed. I believe they did slow down in the second half.”
The Jackets have some time off now to ready themselves before a much tougher stretch of schedule — Oct. 14 at No. 12/13 Miami (3-0), Oct. 21 vs. Wake Forest (4-1) and Oct. 28 at No. 2 Clemson (5-0).
Johnson is optimistic about Marshall and Lee being available for the ACC Coastal Division showdown at Miami. Regardless of who plays, the Jackets will surely seek to maintain the same formula that they’ve used; grind it out.
“Unless you do something crazy, if you hold the ball for 38 minutes most of the time you’re going to win,” Johnson said. “I guess if you rush the ball for 400 yards, you win most of the games [too].”