CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Georgia Tech didn't dwell on the mistakes that nearly put a depleted North Carolina team in control of the game. Instead, the Yellow Jackets focused on what they do best: running the ball, fighting for every yard and wearing down the defense.
Joshua Nesbitt ran for a touchdown and threw for another to help them beat the Tar Heels 30-24 on Saturday, extending Georgia Tech's recent dominance in the series against a team left short-handed again by an ongoing NCAA investigation.
Nesbitt ran for a tying touchdown late in the third quarter, then directed the drive that ended with Scott Blair's go-ahead field goal early in the fourth. Orwin Smith and Roddy Jones also scored touchdowns for Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), which overcame some second-half miscues after a mistake-free opening half to hang on for its 11th win in 13 meetings.
The defending ACC champions lost at Kansas to fall out of the rankings last week, prompting coach Paul Johnson to say he wanted this players to "show me, don't tell me" that they had learned from their mistakes. This time, at least, they proved they could overcome them.
"Any time you win, I'm happy. It's hard to win," Johnson said. "People who take winning for granted aren't very smart, because it's hard. I don't know in my three years if we've had any easy wins. They're all hard."
Johnny White ran for a career-high 113 yards and a touchdown for the Tar Heels (0-2, 0-1), who again tried to play through the distraction of an NCAA probe into agent-related benefits and possible academic misconduct. Twelve players sat out, including NFL prospects Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn, Deunta Williams and Kendric Burney on defense.
The Yellow Jackets took advantage with their triple-option attack, running for 372 yards and dominating possession after the Tar Heels got off to a fast start. North Carolina led 17-14 after five possessions, but the Yellow Jackets ran off 57 of the next 69 offensive plays while controlling the ball for 29½ of the next 34 minutes.
"It's the offense," said Nesbitt, who ran for 104 yards. "It's just grind the clock and keep the other team's offense off the field, try to keep their defense on and just wear them down."
The Tar Heels had 13 players sit out of the 30-24 loss to LSU on Labor Day weekend due to the NCAA review. The school had hoped to find out the status of several players during the off week that followed, but only tailback Shaun Draughn was cleared from that group.
And yet, the Tar Heels found themselves in a familiar spot: trailing by the same score in the final minutes with a chance to drive for the winning touchdown.
T.J. Yates pushed the Tar Heels to the LSU 6-yard line before missing on two throws into the end zone to end that game. This time, the Tar Heels' final drive stalled just across midfield when Brad Jefferson took down White well short of the marker on fourth down with 1:16 left.
It was the first time in program history that it lost consecutive games by the same score.
"These kids and our coaching staff, they want to win," North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. "This is what I will tell you: the measure of a man and the measure of a team and the measure of your players is are they giving you everything that they can and are they getting better? And the answer to both of those is yes as far as I'm concerned."
After both teams scored all three of their first-half possessions, Nesbitt's bad option pitch led to the game's first turnover and set up White's 4-yard score for the 24-17 third-quarter lead. Minutes later, the Tar Heels stopped the Yellow Jackets on a fourth-and-2 near midfield to gain momentum.
But Yates fumbled on a handoff attempt and Jefferson pounced on the loose ball. That set up another chance for Nesbitt, who scrambled to his left on a third-and-long and found Jones open on the left side for a short pass. Jones broke a tackle and sprinted 41 yards to the Tar Heels' 5, and Nesbitt scored on a keeper two plays later to tie it.
Then, after the Yellow Jackets defense forced a punt, Nesbitt directed a 44-yard drive that ended with Blair's 46-yard kick for the 27-24 lead. Blair added a 36-yard field goal with about 6 minutes left.