UNC defense shuts down Jackets

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 8, 2008

By Bret Strelow
CHAPEL HILL ó Quarterback T.J. Yates returned to North Carolina’s lineup in the closing minutes and delivered the pass on a record-setting reception by Hakeem Nicks, whose departure paved the way for Dwight Jones to make his collegiate debut.
The defense’s prolonged stinginess set the stage for twists as unexpected as UNC’s unveiling of navy blue jersey tops.
The 19th-ranked Tar Heels held No. 22 Georgia Tech’s option attack in check and carried a shutout deep into the fourth quarter while collecting a 28-7 victory on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
Starting quarterback Cameron Sexton capped the game’s opening drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Zack Pianalto, and Ryan Houston rushed for two fourth-quarter TDs that followed Tech turnovers.
The Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2 ACC) threatened to hold a Paul Johnson-coached team scoreless for only the second time in the last 75 contests, but Jonathan Dwyer broke loose for an 85-yard touchdown with six minutes remaining.
“It was still a very impressive win,” UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson said. “All year they’ve been running up and down the field with the option attack, just scoring points on people. We knew if they got behind their offense wasn’t built to come from behind.”
North Carolina, which had extra preparation time thanks to last weekend’s bye, moved into a three-way tie for first place in the Coastal Division with Virginia Tech and Miami. It extended its first series when Houston gained 5 yards on a fourth-and-1 carry from UNC’s 42.
The Yellow Jackets (7-3, 4-3) finished with 326 rushing yards, but they failed to convert on two fourth-and-short situations in the first 18 minutes. Georgia Tech’s Scott Blair missed field-goal attempts from 40 and 52 yards in the last six minutes of the first half.
“This is the first time our football team has played an offense like Georgia Tech,” second-year UNC coach Butch Davis said. “Trust me, before the game, you have no idea. There’s an awful lot of anxiety with the coaching staff and probably with the players.
“Did we prepare them well enough? Were we able to execute the offense well enough to give our kids a reasonable fighting chance to get into the flow of the game. The buzzwords were clearly disciplined assignment football.”
UNC was still clinging to a 7-0 lead when Georgia Tech’s Roddy Jones muffed a punt with 1:23 left in the third quarter. Matt Merletti made the recovery at the Yellow Jackets’ 30, and Houston scored on a 2-yard carry with 13:57 remaining.
Cam Thomas sacked backup quarterback Jaybo Shaw, who took over for starter Josh Nesbitt midway through the third quarter, on the first play of the next series. Robert Quinn forced a fumble on Shaw’s second-down keeper, and Mark Paschal fell on the loose ball at Georgia Tech’s 32. Houston rushed on all five plays of UNC’s third touchdown drive.
Sexton closed the scoring when he faked a handoff to Houston and fired a 31-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Nicks on fourth-and-2 with 4:11 remaining.
Nicks broke Corey Holliday’s school record of 2,447 career receiving yards on his next catch. Yates, who had missed five straight games while recovering from a non-displaced fracture to his left ankle, entered with 3:42 left and found Nicks for 28 yards on first down.
“We weren’t trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes,” Davis said. “It was truly a day-by-day progression with T.J. over these last couple of weeks as he started to come back to practice. You didn’t know the score would ever unfold that we’d get him a chance in a comfort situation.”
Jones, a highly touted freshman from Burlington, took the field for the first time later in the same series.
Only three games remain on UNC’s regular-season schedule, but the Tar Heels have three senior receivers (Brooks Foster, injured Brandon Tate and Davie County alum Cooter Arnold) as well as a junior in Nicks who is an NFL prospect.
Jones said he hadn’t discussed the option of redshirting with his head coach, but the late appearance caught him by surprise.
“I had to get a mouthpiece from the trainer,” Jones said. “I never take one out onto the field because I’ve never been able to get in.”