Photo Courtesy of UNC Athletics

The almost-ready-for-primetime Tar Heels were at the crossroads of the game and most likely their chances to win the ACC championship.

After dominating their Coastal Division rival and old nemesis for the first 25 minutes, they allowed Georgia Tech to score just before halftime and narrow their lead to 20-14. And the Yellow Jackets were receiving the second half kickoff with a golden opportunity to take control of the game on a rainy Saturday in Atlanta.

uncgatechUNC had two chances to retain the edge it built with the attacking offense and aggressive defense of the expert game plan put together by Blake Anderson and Vic Koenning. The first was to stop Tech’s triple-option momentum and, if that wasn’t possible, keep scoring to stay ahead.

Dressed in Carolina (not powder) Blue with menacing black pants and trim all over, the Heels began like they meant business. To beat Georgia Tech, you have to sting the Jackets early and force them out of their comfort zone on offense. After a Romar Morris sprint to the pylon and a spectacular one-handed end zone grab by the incredibly athletic Eric Ebron, the visitors looked on their way to snapping a seven-game, 16-year drought at Grant Field and forgetting the embarrassing 68 points they gave up to Tech in Kenan last season.

Even a dubious Tech touchdown on a bad replay rule did not stop them from rebuilding a two-score lead, thanks to Bryn Renner’s running dart to Sean Tapley in the left corner of the end zone. Carolina was attacking the edges with quick pitches and flat passes, setting up Renner’s play fakes and downfield throws.

And the defense was digging in, keeping its feet against the notorious Tech cut-blocking, executing assignments and for the most part making open field tackles that prevented long gainers. It was all working beautifully until the Jackets got the ball with just over five minutes left in the first half.

Time of possession and field position are so critical in football, and the Heels were holding their own with both. But by the time Renner could sustain his next drive, Tech had kept the ball for almost 15 straight minutes, tremendously tiring the Carolina defense. You could see it with your very eyes.

Larry Fedora talks about game-changing plays and critical penalties, and his team lost its best chance to regain control on one snap. Renner found Wes Welker-like freshman Ryan Switzer behind the defense and hit him in stride with an 82-yard touchdown pass. Renner almost went into his lawn-mower celebration dance on the field but then spotted a flag at the old line of scrimmage. Tackle Jon Heck had protected him illegally, and the holding call brought the play back.

A punt from their end zone set up Tech’s go-ahead score and, as the Atlanta skies opened up, what was once their game to lose became a series of last chances in a near-monsoon. The plan was in tatters, the tackling got worse and the Tar Heel offense could not stay on the field long enough to regain the lead or tie the score with a last-ditch touchdown and two-point conversion.

Scoring the last 21 points of the game and shutting out Carolina in the second half, the Jacket’s ended up possessing the ball for more than 40 of the 60 minutes, which eventually surrendered the Carolina defense that had played so well early after a week off and almost a year of preparation.

The 28-20 defeat on ESPN will be a tough one for Fedora and his staff to stomach. They forced four Tech fumbles and could fall on only one. They were on the wrong end of not one but two highly questionable replay reversals, the second a fumble by Jackets’ quarterback and Durham Hillside grad Vad Lee, who had clearly lost the ball before his knee hit the ground. Was there really “indisputable video evidence” that he regained possession for a millisecond before losing it again? I think not. Kareem Martin, who had 10 tackles on the miserable day, should have received proper credit for causing a fumble and recovering it.

And there were more untimely penalties than Heck’s hold that kept Tech drives going or killed Carolina possessions. In the end, the plan to get the lead and keep the triple option on the sideline that had started so well, failed miserably. Losing its 14th ACC opener in the last 16 years again left Carolina a long shot for the Coastal title and needing help from the two Techs, Miami and Virginia to reach Charlotte.

This is not a great Carolina team and it’s questionable if these Tar Heels can get there. They rushed the ball a little better, but Gio’s two touchdowns and key yardage last week came in a Bengals’ uniform. They dressed 66 scholarship players – minus the suspended Jack Tabb and injured T.J. Thorpe – and their depth is thinner than Fedora’s 30-inch waist. No one beside the 6’-6” Martin is headed for New York and the NFL draft, so this is an undermanned, undersized group of guys that has to execute like crazy and scratch every ounce out of their god-given ability. They did it for a while Saturday.

But, as an old coach once drawled, fooootball is a 60-minute game.