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September 21, 2011Saturday's noon game in Atlanta between Georgia Tech and UNC will neither make nor break either team's season, but the loser will find have to hustle to make up ground.
Each team is off to a 3-0 start, with UNC defeating Virginia 28-17 in the opening conference game last Saturday. Now the challenge increases with a trip to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech and its powerful option attack.
"This is a really big game," Tar Heel offensive lineman James Hurst said. "Winning this game would make us 2-0 in the conference and in our division specifically. It would give us a jump on teams that have not played two conference games or have lost one."
Interim coach Everett Withers emphasizes the importance of conference games.
"We knew if you are going to win the Coastal Division you couldn't start 0-1," Hurst said. "Coach Withers talks about conference games counting twice. Someone wins and goes up in the [standings]; the other loses and goes down in the [standings].
"So we put a lot of emphasis on our conference games."
The Yellow Jackets appear to be a far superior team to Virginia. Beating Georgia Tech in Atlanta will be a difficult task.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Withers said. "We have a really tough opponent, obviously on the road. We'll find out a lot about our football team this week. We're looking forward to getting on the road and finding that out."
The Yellow Jackets broke school records for most rushing yards (604) and most total offense (768) in a startling 66-24 victory against Kansas last week. Tech's 12.1 yards per carry also broke an NCAA record.
"Georgia Tech is killing some people right now," Hurst said. "It's going to be a great challenge. I'm excited for it. It's going to be tough and it's going to be different. We'll be ready for it."
Many people focus on the need to slow Tech's rushing game, and rightfully so. Nonetheless, while that is important, a greater goal for Carolina may well be to get an early and substantial lead.
"This week is about scoring efficiency," Hurst said. "Every time we get the ball, we're stressing scoring. We want touchdowns, especially when we get down there close. We have to capitalize.
"We're pretty excited about that," Hurst said. "We want to try to eat some clock, too, and keep their offense on the sideline as long as possible. We'll have fewer possessions, but that is how the game goes."
What the Tar Heels cannot afford is to have too many possessions in which they run three plays and punt. Carolina converted a meager 3-of-10 third down opportunities against Virginia.
"We can't have those three-and-outs," said quarterback Bryn Renner, who went 15-of-21 for 143 yards and two touchdowns against Virginia.
"Every opportunity we have to capitalize with a touchdown or field goal, we have to score the ball," Renner said. "We have to try to be ahead."
One way to do that is continuing to spring redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard for big runs. He gained 102 yards on just 12 carries against Virginia. That is an average of 8.5 yards per carry.
"He's just an electric player," Renner said. "I love having him on our team. He is such a positive guy. We're very blessed to have him on our team."
The Carolina coaching staff rewarded the offensive line by naming it the offensive players of the game against Virginia.
Now the UNC defense is going to see an excellent offensive line. Georgia Tech leads the country in rushing, and no one is better than the Yellow Jackets at hogging the ball.
So while the UNC offense can help tremendously by being efficient itself, the defense is going to have to get some stops and not let the Yellow Jackets dominate time of possession and run up and down the field all day.
"We talk about it all the time," Withers said. "The ball is the issue. You have the ball, nobody can beat you."