Heels’ rally falls short

Published 10:29 pm Saturday, September 24, 2011

ATLANTA  — Everett Withers missed out on a chance to become the first North Carolina coach to start 4-0 since the Atlantic Coast Conference was founded 58 years ago.
He had no complaints about his team’s effort.
The Tar Heels (3-1, 1-1 ACC) fought back from a two-touchdown deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, but No. 25 Georgia Tech pulled out a 35-28 victory on Tevin Washington’s 5-yard touchdown run with about 5½ minutes remaining Saturday.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this team,” said Withers, who took over as interim coach just before the start of preseason practice when the scandal-plagued program dumped Butch Davis. “We have a chance to be good. We have a chance to be real good.”
So does Georgia Tech, which improved to 4-0 for the first time since 1990. That was the season the Yellow Jackets went unbeaten and claimed a share of the national championship with Colorado.
“After the first few games, we thought we would try and make this more exciting,” joked coach Paul Johnson, whose team won its first three games by an average of more than 37 points. “I was proud of our guys and especially the way we came back in the fourth quarter.”
The Tar Heels were actually the ones who did most of the rallying in the final period, tying the game on Giovani Bernard’s 55-yard run with 7:22 left.
Georgia Tech needed only four plays to respond in its conference opener. Running back Roddy Jones reached out to take a pitch from Washington that looked too far in front of him, going 48 yards down the sideline to the North Carolina 9. Two snaps later, Washington carried it in himself for the winning score with 5:20 left.
Stephen Hill had a huge game for Georgia Tech with six receptions for 151 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown. Bernard rushed for 155 yards and two TDs.
The Yellow Jackets came in with the nation’s highest-scoring offense (59.3 points a game) and leading in several other offensive categories. While not nearly as dominating as they were in the first three games, they still had another big day offensively — 312 yards on the ground, 496 yards in all.
Still, the Tar Heels did a respectable job, especially without leading tackler Zach Brown, who played only on the special teams because of a disciplinary issue.
“I’m loving where we are right now,” Withers said. “We had a chance at the end. What more can you ask for?”
Washington coughed up a fumble and tossed an interception, but mostly he ran the offense just as it’s drawn up. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 184 yards, hooking up with Hill on Georgia Tech’s seventh one-play scoring drive of the season midway through the second period.
Hill should’ve had another score, dropping a sure TD pass late in the game after he again broke free behind the secondary. He pulled up with some sort of cramp or hamstring problem just as the ball arrived, then hobbled to the sideline.
It was hard to get too mad at the 6-foot-5 receiver, especially with the leaping, one-handed grab he made on a pass in the first half, somehow getting his fingers on the ball and pulling it down as he fell hard to the ground.
“I just used my basketball skills from high school,” Hill said.
Washington also ran 25 times for 74 yards, taking quite a pounding from the Tar Heels.
“I knew I was going to have to make some plays in the running game,” he said. “Just making sure I didn’t try to do too much and just do my job.”
North Carolina’s Bryn Renner completed 17 of 25 passes for 204 yards, but a couple of interceptions plagued the sophomore in his first start outside of Chapel Hill.
“I can’t use that as an excuse,” he said. “We didn’t make enough plays to win. That’s all it boils down to.”
The Tar Heels trailed 17-7 at halftime, and Georgia Tech drove for a field goal on the opening possession to extend its lead.
Renner and Bernard led North Carolina back. Renner completed five straight passes on a right-down-the-field, 74-yard drive the first time he got the ball, three of the completions going to Dwight Jones before Nelson Hurst hauled in a 6-yard scoring pass.
The shootout was on. Washington guided Georgia Tech on a 13-play, 81-yard drive and scored on a 1-yard dive. The Yellow Jackets also made the 2-point conversion for their biggest lead.
North Carolina didn’t fade. Renner completed three more passes before hitting freshman Eric Ebron over the middle for a 20-yard TD on the first play of the fourth quarter, drawing the Tar Heels within 28-21.
Then, facing third-and-15 deep in Tar Heels territory, Bernard took a short pass and broke at least three tackles on a 19-yard play that kept the drive going. He followed with an even bigger play, taking a handoff at his own 45 and going untouched up the middle to make it 28-all.
North Carolina drove for its only lead on the first possession of the game, with Bernard scoring on a 4-yard run. The Yellow Jackets settled for Justin Moore’s 23-yard field goal on their opening possession, breaking a streak of three straight games in which they scored on their first offensive play.
Turns out, they saved that sort of quick strike for a possession midway through the second period. From the 41, Washington fooled the Tar Heels with a play that looked like a run. The cornerback bit on the fake and Hill ran right on by, hauling in the pass on the run and not stopping until he got to the end zone for a 10-7 lead.