Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
If Saturday goes as many like to think it should, Georgia Tech will have a good time at Bobby Dodd Stadium, gradually grinding an already-battered North Carolina squad into dust.
It would be bad practice, though, to count on such things as the Yellow Jackets seek a 2-0 ACC start for the fourth time in the last seven seasons.
Tech players sure aren't hanging their helmets on all the good that they've done in games against Tennessee, Jacksonville State and Pitt.
As the Jackets (2-1, 1-0 ACC) aim for the injury-riddled Tar Heels (1-3, 0-2), they're preparing for UNC as if the visitors are defending champions.
Nevermind that that the Jackets are leading the nation in rushing with an average of 393.7 yards per game. The running game has to get better. Everything must improve.
Just ask sophomore left guard Parker Braun, who was named the ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week for the second time in his career after the Jackets beat Pitt, 35-17, last Saturday. Listening to him after Tech rushed for 436 yards, you'd have thought the Jackets laid an egg.
"I really hope that we can clean up our offense and play a game that we really haven't played at that level," he said this week. "I'm excited for the future and excited for when the puzzle pieces all lock in and fit . . . There's a new level of dedication. It's embarrassing, even when we win . . ."
There is no doubt the Jackets were embarrassed to lose four fumbles against Pitt, but fans surely were buoyed to see the defense force three-and-outs after each turnover. That was good news.
"It's great knowing the defense can put the ball back in our hands, even if we turn the ball over," said quarterback TaQuon Marshall. "We can play more relaxed if we know the defense is going to get us the ball back."
The Jackets really aren't relaxed, though. Even though he rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns last weekend, Marshall said he was, "Terrible. I didn't play really well. Holding onto the ball, fundamentals, bad passes. Just overall, I wasn't really happy with my performance. Watching film made it worse."
The Jackets would have you believe they're not watching the Tar Heels' injury report, which has churned like a stock exchange ticker.
North Carolina has lost at least nine players to season-ending injuries and will be without at least three would-be starters for this game.
While the Tar Heels have beaten Tech in three-consecutive seasons, averaging a whopping 44.7 points per game, they're not exactly confident, either.
Beyond their injury issues, they seem worried about Tech's unique spread-option offense.
North Carolina defensive coordinator John Papuchis told reporters that he and his staff spent a week during the summer on Georgia Tech and that UNC players have been watching Tech game film, "during the spring, summer, preseason practice and Sundays during the season," according to the Charlotte Observer.
"If you wait for the game week to start getting ready, it would be very difficult," Papuchis said. "I don't think you would have a chance."
For more localized anxiety, look to Tech senior defensive end Antonio Simmons. He had two sacks against Pitt, yet said in the middle of this week he wasn't happy with that, just like the Jackets aren't content with what they've done.
"I still missed two or three sacks, so I wasn't OK with how I played," Simmons said.
The Tar Heels are not OK. With all the injuries that North Carolina has endured, head coach Larry Fedora said, "There are things out of our control . . . You're not going to have continuity."
Tech can say the same.
Starting left tackle Jahaziel Lee will miss the UNC game with a lower-body injury, would-be starting right tackle Andrew Marshall remains out with a lower-body injury and starting A-back J.J. Green landed on the injury list during the week with an upper-body injury. He's also not expected to play.
Depth will be an issue, as the No. 1 backup guard, Brad Morgan, is also out.
Still, Tech figures to attack the middle of North Carolina's defense, plowing behind Braun, sophomore center Kenny Cooper and Devine.
"I think that our best players up front are in those positions so that needs to be a strength for us," Johnson said.
The formula worked well last week, when sophomore KirVonte Benson rushed for 196 yards, the most ever by a B-back in Johnson's Tech offense.
He's ready to sign up for more.
"First couple games, you kind of get in tune with what you can do . . . this last game, I trusted it more," Benson recalled. "This is only the beginning of what we can do. We're a better team, a better chemistry . . . the goal is to go to the ACC Championship [game]."
The Jackets hope to check a certain box on their way to that title game and pay back North Carolina for three-straight losses. This game, Braun said, will be, "a chance for revenge, or redemption you could say."