Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Georgia Tech defenders may be playing with greater force than in several years, and their next opponent looks like a herd of younger, wounded animals. But anyone thinking that the Yellow Jackets are taking North Carolina lightly is nuts.
There will be an overdue bill to be paid at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. For the chatter always heard in sports about leaving behind the past, the Jackets (2-1, 1-0 ACC) will take on the Tar Heels (1-3, 0-2) mindful that UNC pasted 134 points on Tech over the past three meetings -- all losses.
"They've had our number the past three years; I've never beaten North Carolina," said senior linebacker Terrell Lewis. "This is where I really want to get after them . . .this one, for me personally, is one I want to get before I leave here."
These Tar Heels will look quite different, especially on offense, as six UNC players left via the NFL Draft, five of them from the offensive side of the ball.
Gone are quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who was drafted second overall by the Bears, wide receivers Mack Hollins (fourth round, Eagles) and Ryan Switzer (fourth round, Cowboys), and running backs T.J. Logan (fifth round, Cardinals) and Elijah Hood (seventh round, Raiders).
North Carolina is beat up, too.
Having already lost nine players to season-ending injuries before falling 27-17 to Duke last Saturday in Chapel Hill, the Heels lost wide receivers Austin Proehl and Rontavius Groves and defensive tackle Tyler Powell in that game. They're not expected to play against the Jackets.
The picture at North Carolina looks vaguely familiar, actually, and Tech head coach Paul Johnson shall not be fooled.
"They're in the midst of experiencing a little bit of what we did in 15, it sounds like, with every time you turn around you've got another guy getting hurt," Johnson said in recalling the most injury-riddled season of his 10 years at Tech.
Lest anyone forget, in '15, the Tar Heels won in Bobby Dodd Stadium for the first time in 18 years, 38-31. That followed Tech's 48-43 loss at UNC in '14 and preceded last year's 48-20 loss in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora typically likes to push pace with his offense, and quarterbacks Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris are not on the Heels' injury list, but it's folly to predict what UNC will look like Saturday.
Emboldened by stout defensive showings in a 37-10 win over Jacksonville State and a 35-17 win last Saturday over Pitt, in which the Panthers scored on a punt return, the Jackets will carry confidence into their second ACC game.
"It's different this year," said senior defensive end Antonio Simmons, who had two of Tech's three sacks against Pitt. "We're a very mature team on defense, very old on defense. I don't think they're going to do what they did last year . . . They had our number that game.
"We've just got to get ourselves right. Eat, hydrate. We'll be ready. I'm not worried about tempo."
The Jackets are blending nicely at all three levels of their defense, yet junior safety A.J. Gray -- who had four tackles, a sack and a pass breakup against Pitt -- said last year's game against North Carolina doesn't matter now and neither does last Saturday's Pitt contest.
This is all about the here and now.
"That game's over and done. We've got to get ready for this one," Gray explained. "They just wanted it more than us. This year, [that's] going to be different . . . I feel the whole defense is playing good."
Johnson in the past couple weeks has suggested that the Jackets are more effective defensively in part because coordinator Ted Roof has become more expansive in his play calls, mixing in more blitzes and stunts.
Players seem to enjoy the diversity, if result are taken as a fair indicator.
There is a difference, though, between confidence and cockiness, especially in the modern ACC.
"I've said before, the league is way different than when I came 10 years ago. It's way more balanced, and it's not even close," the Jackets' head coach said. "Overall, it's way better than when I got here . . .
"When I first game in the league . . . there was three or four teams you could kind of count on, unless something crazy happened, you were going to win those games. There's not any now. Every week is a game where if you don't play well, you can get beat."
Johnson should know.
Think back to '15, when the Jackets slogged to a 3-9 record with a slew of injuries and young players called upon before their times.
And remember, if you will, that Tech beat No. 9 Florida State, 22-16, when Lance Austin returned a blocked field goal 78 yards on the final play of the game.
It can happen if you let it. Johnson's no preacher but he's letting the Jackets know: you don't want to give the Tar Heels even a puncher's chance.
"Every game in this league is a dogfight," he said. "If you go in lackadaisical . . . you'll get hit right in the mouth because I tell our guys all the time: `Nobody's going to be intimidated watching us get off the bus.' You'd better bring it and prepare."