CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina's defense hung in against Georgia Tech's triple-option attack long enough for the offense to finally get moving. It was enough to give the No. 19 Tar Heels a critical win in their muddled Atlantic Coast Conference division race.
Ryan Houston ran for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to help North Carolina beat the 20th-ranked Yellow Jackets 28-7 on Saturday, ensuring their first winning season in seven years.
Cameron Sexton added two touchdown passes for the Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), while Hakeem Nicks had a touchdown catch and set the school record for career receiving yardage in the final period.
North Carolina also used a strong 1-2 rushing attack with Houston and Shaun Draughn, and converted a pair of fumbles into touchdowns to break the game open late.
North Carolina matched its victory total of the previous two seasons combined.
"One of the things that you're always concerned about is how you handle success when you've never had it," second-year coach Butch Davis said. "A very important part of the growth process is we really need to enjoy the moment. But when they come in to watch that film, it's as if this game never happened."
The Tar Heels were already enjoying their most successful season in a decade and their first bowl eligibility in four years. Yet they were more focused on what awaited them coming out of last week's break, primarily the chance to stay alive in a division race that entered the day with five two-loss teams.
But the break served an even more vital role: providing the defense extra time to prepare for the offense that Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson brought from Navy.
It was clear the Tar Heels were prepared; Georgia Tech couldn't sustain a scoring drive nor push deeper than the Tar Heels 23-yard until Jonathan Dwyer's 85-yard touchdown run -- the longest rush allowed by North Carolina -- with 6 minutes left.
By then, however, the Tar Heels already had a 21-0 lead.
"Seeing it for two weeks definitely played a part," said linebacker Mark Paschal, who recovered the second of the two game-turning fumbles. "Everybody knew their assignment and carried it out and we were able to put ourselves in position to slow them down a little bit."
Dwyer, the league's No. 2 rusher, ran for 157 yards for the Yellow Jackets (7-3, 4-3), who finished with 326 yards rushing and 423 total yards.
But they did themselves in with several miscues that kept them scoreless until the game was out of reach -- none bigger than the back-to-back turnovers in the third and fourth quarters.
There were also two missed field goals and two failed fourth-and-short conversion attempts in the first half.
"I just see it as we didn't come ready to play," Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt said, "and they beat us from start to finish."
North Carolina's offense didn't give its defense much help, getting Sexton's touchdown pass to Zack Pianalto on the opening drive but little else for the next two-plus quarters. That is, until Georgia Tech's Roddy Jones muffed a punt that was recovered by Matt Merletti at the Yellow Jackets 30 late in the third quarter.
North Carolina converted quickly, getting an 8-yard run from Draughn to help set up Houston's 2-yard score that made it 14-0 with 13:57 to play.
Then, Robert Quinn stripped Jaybo Shaw on a keeper and Paschal recovered the fumble on the ensuing possession. Houston converted again, running four straight times before bouncing off a hit from Morgan Burnett at the goalline for a 3-yard score that pushed the lead to 21 points with 10:49 left.
"We play better when the defense is making a big stop or creating a turnover," Houston said. "We thrive on that. That's why I wish we'd kick off every time [to start the game] because we get a spark off of it."
Johnson said the fumbles blew any chance Georgia Tech had left.
"We fumble it away then we go back out there and lay it on the ground on the very next series," he said. "Lights out."
Draughn finished with 90 yards rushing and Houston had a career-high 74 to offset a shaky passing day from Sexton, who went just 7-for-16 for 100 yards.
But Sexton found Nicks for an easy 31-yard score on fourth down with 4:11 left to seal it, and Nicks set the receiving record with a 22-yard catch a little later from T.J. Yates, making his first appearance in relief from a broken ankle suffered in September against Virginia Tech.