ATLANTA (AP) — North Carolina had its sights on an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, maybe even a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Then, it all came crumbling down.
The No. 17 Tar Heels (6-1, 3-1 ACC) are reeling from a shocking, inexplicable 31-27 loss at home to a one-win Virginia team that wiped out their best start in more than a quarter-century.
This can still be a special season, but those hopes have certainly taken a hit heading into Saturday's game against Georgia Tech (3-4, 2-2).
“Is it a bad loss? All losses are bad," coach Mack Brown said. “Everyone expects you to win every game, and you expect to win every game. So, where does the fall come? On me. Hundred percent. I didn't do a good enough job with our team and our coaches. I let our team down, I let our coaches down, I let our staff down, I let our administration down, and I let our fans down.”
Brown noted that the Tar Heels have struggled in the past coming off big wins, yet they ignored the warning signs on the heels of a 41-31 victory over Miami.
“There's no buzz about the game," Brown said. “There were all kinds of checkmarks that say this was going to be a tough one and a handful. And no one thought it was. And that's usually when you're in trouble.”
Georgia Tech is also coming off a discouraging home loss, fading in the fourth quarter of a 38-23 setback to Boston College.
“You can't look in the rearview mirror,” Yellow Jackets coach Brent Key said. “You have to move forward.”
Brown is certainly eager to see how his team plays moving forward.
“When you get disappointed, you get back up and go to work,” Brown said. “You take a negative and try to turn it into a positive. That’s what this week is about. You learn from losses. For our team, that’s a great teachable moment last week."
Drake Maye's accuracy has dipped the last two games, even though North Carolina's star quarterback got a huge new weapon in the passing game with the arrival of Devontez Walker.
Walker has four touchdowns in the past two games after missing time amid a lengthy debate over his NCAA eligibility as a two-time transfer.
Even with Walker, Maye completed only 41 of 81 passes (50.6%) against Miami and Virginia. In the stunning loss to the Cavaliers, Maye was frequently off target with throws while there were numerous drops by receivers and a called-back touchdown on a deep ball due to a penalty.
Maye completed more than 70% of his passes through the first five games.
FOURTH QUARTER WOES
Georgia Tech has been outscored 78-48 in the final period, costing the Yellow Jackets a shot at two more wins.
The most glaring collapse came a week ago, when Key's team gave up three fourth-quarter touchdowns to Boston College. The Yellow Jackets surrendered 153 yards rushing over the final 15 minutes, nearly doubling what the Eagles had through the first three quarters.
“We've got to play better football in the fourth quarter,” Key said. “Be in a better place to be able to sustain and play with an edge and some toughness that we have to in those situations.”
RUN, HEELS, RUN
The Tar Heels have gotten some huge rushing performances from Omarion Hampton this season.
Brown and his assistants spent the week reviewing why they didn’t get him the ball more after halftime against the Cavaliers.
Hampton ran for 234 yards and three touchdowns in a double-overtime win against Appalachian State, and had 197 yards and a score against Miami. He ran for 112 yards on 19 carries against Virginia but touched the ball only five times after halftime despite routinely ripping off significant gains.
Don’t be surprised if he takes on a heavier load against Georgia Tech.
“If you’re passing game’s not hitting, go to something that is,” Brown said.
The Yellow Jackets haven't been to a bowl since 2018.
Their odds of ending that postseason drought would take a big hit if they can't pull off an upset of North Carolina.
Georgia Tech's next two games are on the road against Virginia and Clemson, and No. 1 Georgia looms in the regular-season finale.
The Tar Heels have lost 10 of their last 12 games against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.
“Georgia Tech’s had North Carolina’s number," Brown said. "That makes this a game that people should project that we lose, period. Because we have.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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