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Second-half surge helps Tech ramble past UNC 28-20

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu (45) celebrates a tackle for a loss in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 28-20. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu (45) celebrates a tackle for a loss in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 28-20. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — As wet as the front that moved through town during Georgia Tech’s game with North Carolina, water seemed to be a recurring theme, especially during the second half.

While the Yellow Jackets’ defense turned off what had been a free-flowing spigot of the North Carolina offense, the offense used water torture-like ball control to help complete a comeback of 21 unanswered points.

The combination lifted Tech to a 28-20 win before an announced crowd of 49,445 that was likely held down by the weather Saturday at rainy Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We are wet,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said as he opened his postgame press conference after the Jackets improved to 3-0 overall and 2-0 in the ACC. “It was a wet day out there. I’ll tell you, I’m really proud of our team, especially in the second half. We didn’t start out very well. I think you have to give North Carolina credit. They came out and really played hard on both sides of the ball.”

Down by two scores at one point in the first half — 13-0 and 20-7, thanks to a pair of touchdown passes from Bryn Renner, who finished the day 14 of 29 for 218 yards — Tech got a bit of a bad break, and then a good one, on the ensuing drive to get back into the game in the second quarter.

With the Jackets trailing 13-0 and facing fourth and goal from the 1-yard line, senior B-back David Sims took a handoff and dove for the end zone, only to have the ball knocked loose, with the Tar Heels recovering.

But the official positioned at the goal line signaled touchdown, and video replay proved inconclusive enough to overturn the call, putting Tech on the board and cutting North Carolina’s lead to 13-7 with 11:13 left in the first half.

“I really didn’t know,” Sims said of whether on not he was sure he broke the plane of the end zone before the ball came loose. “When they said it was a touchdown, I was thankful. I probably should’ve just run it through the guard, but I was just trying to get it over the top because I figured they were going to go low.”

Tech managed to take a little momentum into halftime thanks to a late 12-play, 80-yard drive in the waning minutes.

Lee hit Darren Waller with a 21-yard TD pass with 30 seconds left in the half to send the Jackets into intermission down just 20-14 despite being outgained 295-194 in total offense.

“I thought the momentum changed right when we were able to take that last drive right before half and go down and score and close the (deficit) to one score,” Johnson said. “We knew were getting the ball first in the second half.”

But the real change in momentum occurred after an exchange of punts early in the second half.

It looked like North Carolina had extended its lead when Renner threaded the needle for an apparent 82-yard TD pass to Ryan Switzer less than four minutes into the third quarter.

But the score was negated by a holding penalty, and after a sack and more penalties, the Tar Heels were forced to punt out of their own end zone, with Tech taking over at its own 47.

The Jackets then marched 53 yards in nine plays, with Lee sneaking in from a yard out to give Tech its first lead of the day at 21-20 with 5:52 left in the third quarter.

“We got a couple of breaks,” Johnson said. “The holding call on the long touchdown pass was huge. … Once we got the lead, it was like we got a renewed energy. We played much better defensively in the second half, and much better offensively, too, I think.”

They increased that momentum, and the lead, with a couple clutch conversions on their next possession.

First, Tech drew the North Carolina defensive line offside on fourth and 1 from the Tar Heels 21 to pick up a first down.

Then, a 6-yard swing pass from Lee to Tony Zenon on third and 6 from the 12 picked up another first down.

Sims then capped the drive by diving in from 6 yards out to push the Tech lead to 28-20 with 13:22 remaining.

The Jackets then salted the game away, first, behind a defense that held North Carolina to just 62 yards of total offense in the second half.

“I just think we got a lot more aggressive instead of waiting to give a punch to them,” said senior cornerback Louis Young, who finished the game with three tackles, two pass break-ups and a fourth-quarter interception. “I think in the second half, we dug deep, leaned on each other and got aggressive in the pass game.”

The Jackets then turned it over to a methodical offense, which got 100 yards from A-back Robert Godhigh — the first 100-yard game of his career — and 99 more from Sims, as the Jackets controlled the ball for 40:38 in the game and 22:21 in the second half, including the final 6:27 of the game.

Such ball control has been a trademark in Tech’s current five-game winning streak over the Tar Heels, with the Jackets averaging a 38:20-21:40 advantage in time of possession in those games.

“We were poor on our side (on third down conversions),” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “Too many third-and-outs. (Tech) did a nice job of moving the chains on their side. When you get them in a situation like that, that’s what they’re best at — getting three yards, four yards and moving the chains. You’ve got to give them credit there.”