North Carolina defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the Tar Heels would have to “steal” at least three possessions to put themselves in position to beat Georgia Tech.
A stolen possession, as defined by UNC’s staff, means creating a turnover, forcing a three-and-out, or a turnover on downs.
“If we can get three or four of those in the course of the game, then we’re stealing possessions for the offense and it will give us a chance,” Papuchis said last week, heading into UNC’s game against the Yellow Jackets.
But even stealing five possessions from Georgia Tech wasn’t enough for the Tar Heels, who fell 38-28 (1-7, 1-5 ACC) to the Yellow Jackets (5-4, 3-3) this past Saturday in their fifth straight loss.
The Yellow Jackets, who use an option offense, had 565 yards of total offense, including 461 rushing yards. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tobias Oliver ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Nathan Elliott threw three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter.
Here are five takeaways from UNC’s loss to Georgia Tech:
1. Turnovers continue to cost the Tar Heels
With 10:51 left to play in a game that was tied 28-28, senior linebacker Cole Holcomb, who had a career-high 22 tackles, forced a fumble and put the Tar Heels in position to take its first lead since early in the game.
But instead of converting the turnover into points, Elliott threw an interception in UNC territory and Georgia Tech ended up scoring.
Turnovers also contributed to UNC’s other losses.
In UNC’s 24-17 loss at California on Sept. 1, the Tar Heels had four interceptions, two returned for a touchdown.
In its 47-10 loss against Miami on Sept. 27, UNC had six turnovers: three fumbles and three interceptions. Three of those were returned for touchdowns.
Against Virginia Tech on Oct. 20, UNC running back Michael Carter fumbled at the goal line and the Hokies recovered. Had Carter scored, UNC would have been up by 10 late in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Hokies turned that recovered fumble into a touchdown for a 22-19 win.
UNC has 19 turnovers this season, an average of more than two per game. Its turnover margin is -8, which is ranked 125th out of 130 FBS teams in the country.
“It was obviously not how we wanted it to go,” Elliott, the quarterback, said after the loss to Georgia Tech. “We have to make more plays. I take full responsibility for this one. I have to make more plays.”
2. Could freshman Jace Ruder be UNC’s future?
UNC is recruiting former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who took an official visit to the school this past Saturday.
But could UNC true freshman Jace Ruder be just as good of a starting quarterback in future seasons if Bryant transfers somewhere else?
Ruder, a 6-2, 220-pound freshman quarterback, showed a lot of promise in his college debut against Georgia Tech. Ruder, who came in to replace a struggling Elliott, threw five passes, completing four. His throws were strong, accurate and on time.
Ruder’s only incomplete pass was a drop by junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams.
His final pass was a nine-yard touchdown to junior tight end Carl Tucker. Ruder, who rushed for 21 yards, also showed he can run. His teammates and coaches have raved about his athletic ability in practice.
But Ruder took a hard hit in the third quarter against Georgia Tech. After his touchdown drive, he went to the locker room before returning with a sling on his left (non-throwing) arm. It’s unclear how long he’ll be out.
When asked if he is confident Ruder and freshman Cade Fortin are his quarterbacks of the future, Fedora said, “I think they are what we expected of them.”
“I think both kids are going to grow and get better in everything they do. The experience that they have had right now has been good for them.”
3. UNC has few quarterback options after Elliott
With Ruder and Fortin both injured, the Tar Heels don’t have depth at quarterback. Fedora said Elliott’s backups right now are senior walk-on Manny Miles and junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams.
Miles has thrown one pass, a five-yarder in 2017, while at UNC.
Ratliff-Williams, who was converted to a receiver when he got to UNC, has thrown six passes and two touchdowns in three years, which have come on trick plays. He is 0-2 this season. However, he is the Tar Heels’ top target at receiver.
“So we’ll have to do some things to get him prepared,” Fedora said.
4. UNC’s defense allowed it to come back
UNC had three consecutive possessions in which the defense helped the offense get back in the game against Georgia Tech.
Shortly after Ruder’s touchdown pass to Tucker, the junior tight end, brought the score to 28-17 late in the third quarter, Holcomb forced Georgia Tech running back Jordan Mason to fumble. UNC senior safety J.K. Britt recovered at the UNC 28.
The Tar Heels eventually turned that drive into a field goal, cutting Georgia Tech’s lead to 28-20 with 1:13 left in the third quarter.
On its next defensive possession, Georgia Tech had fourth down and short at the UNC 48-yard line. Oliver, the freshman quarterback, seemed to mishandle the snap and was tackled for loss at the 50-yard line. UNC took over on downs and scored a touchdown four plays later. A two-point conversion from Elliott to Ratliff-Williams tied the game at 28.
With 10:51 left in the fourth quarter, Holcomb forced his third fumble. UNC recovered again at its own 8-yard line with a chance to take the lead.
“There was never any doubt in their minds that they were going to win the football game, even when we were down 28-10,” Fedora said. “Give a lot of credit to our leadership on our football team, and our guys keep battling. I’m proud of them for it.”
5. Third-down conversions
The Tar Heels have been among the worst teams in third-down conversion percentage, converting about one-third of their attempts. But on Saturday, they showed improvement.
Against Georgia Tech, UNC was 8-for-14 (57.1 percent) on third-down attempts. One reason was that its average distance on third down was shorter than in previous games. UNC faced only two third downs in which it had to go nine or more yards against the Yellow Jackets. Three third downs were 1-4 yards, and nine were 5-8 yards.
UNC’s average gain on first down was 3.7 yards. Its running game was better compared to its loss to Virginia on Oct. 27, when it ran for a season-low 66 yards.
UNC ran for 166 rushing yards against Georgia Tech.