CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Don’t fault North Carolina for feeling confident about taking on Georgia Tech’s spread-option offense.
Sure, the No. 22 Tar Heels’ defense hasn’t let opponents move the football much through three games. Yet behind the size and fly-to-the-ball instincts, North Carolina carries another asset into Saturday’s game against the Yellow Jackets: the experience of having shut down an offense that typically frustrates defensive coordinators.
Last year, the Yellow Jackets reached the end zone just once in the 28-7 loss to the Tar Heels, one of only two games in which they failed to score at least 10 points in Paul Johnson’s first season. Georgia Tech’s rushing totals looked solid at first glance — 54 carries, 326 yards — but the Yellow Jackets didn’t push deeper than North Carolina’s 23-yard line except for a lone 85-yard touchdown run from Jonathan Dwyer midway through the fourth quarter.
The Tar Heels had an extra week to prepare for that game. They don’t have that luxury this time around, but coach Butch Davis said Monday the team has been reviewing the option since spring drills — with much of that based on the experience from last year’s matchup against Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).
"It certainly is one of the things you talk to your football team about — option responsibility," Davis said. "You’re going to see it over the course of the season so you have to spend some time on it."
North Carolina is brimming with confidence after its weekend win against East Carolina. The Tar Heels are off to their first 3-0 start since Mack Brown’s final team started 8-0 in 1997, which coincidentally was the last time they won in Atlanta.
The team is built around a defense with nine returning starters, and that group hasn’t disappointed. North Carolina ranks sixth nationally in total defense (198.7 yards), sixth in third-down conversion defense (22.2 percent) and seventh in rushing defense (52.3 yards). That has allowed the Tar Heels to overcome the growing pains of a young offense that is trying to develop its receivers and an offensive line.
Georgia Tech’s scheme forces a defense to be disciplined in performing every assignment. Miss one and it could result in a big gain, such as Dwyer’s TD run last year. At a minimum, it can leave defenders so preoccupied in reading what’s happening that it can slow them down a tick and lead to chain-moving plays.
"If you start over thinking and trying to do too much, that’s when things get out of whack," defensive end Robert Quinn said. "You listen to the call, try to be disciplined and read your keys and assignments."
Still, Davis figures the Tar Heels are well-suited to match up with the Yellow Jackets. He’ll just have to wait to see how they’ll handle the on-field part again.
"The recognition is good," Davis said. "They’ve got game experience. Their ability to read and react is good. They play with poise. We are fortunate that we’ve got some experience on defense that hopefully they’ll remember some of the lessons they learned last year."
Also on Monday, the school said deep snapper Trevor Stuart will miss the rest of the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the first half against the Pirates. Mark House relieved him in that game and had spent six games in the position last year before breaking a finger.