ATLANTA — Georgia Tech players insist defense no longer will be team’s weak link this season.

Saturday’s visit from North Carolina, which boasts an offense the Yellow Jackets couldn’t contain the last three years, could show if the renewed optimism is justified.

The defense slammed the door on Pittsburgh in last week’s 35-17 win by allowing no points — and no first downs — following four lost fumbles.

“It’s different this year,” said senior defensive end Antonio Simmons. “We’re a very mature team on defense, very old on defense.”

The defense earned unusual praise from coach Paul Johnson, who said Monday “That might be the best game we’ve tackled since I’ve been here.”

Georgia Tech allowed only 37 yards rushing.

It was an eye-opening performance for a program more accustomed to having the run-first offense carry the load.

North Carolina’s up-tempo spread offense has been a nightmare matchup for Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels averaged 45 points in three straight wins in the series.

“It’s no secret. We’ve struggled defensively against these guys,” Johnson said. “They’ve lit us up here for the last little bit. It’s a challenge for our defense to come out and hopefully we can play as well as we did (last) week.”

For Simmons and other seniors, including linebacker Terrell Lewis, this will be the last opportunity to beat North Carolina.

“They’ve had our number the past three years,” Lewis said. “Since I’ve been here I’ve never beaten North Carolina. … I’ve had three shots and they beat us every time. This is one I really want to get after. We all do.”

The Tar Heels (1-3, 0-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) have struggled with injuries and the task of restocking an offense that lost quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the No. 2 overall in this year’s NFL draft.

Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0) has a chance for a strong start in the ACC’s Coastal Division before an Oct. 14 visit to No. 14 Miami.

It will be important for the defense, which struggled in a 42-41 season-opening loss to Tennessee, to build on improvement shown in wins over Jacksonville State and Pitt.

“I was disappointed in our first game and the last two we’ve played much better,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Hopefully that is a trend and we’ll continue to play well.

“I don’t get too excited until you play four or five games and you have a better idea of really what’s going on.”

North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt showed dual-threat skills in last week’s 27-17 loss to Duke . He passed for 259 yards and a touchdown and ran for a team-leading 77 yards, including a 56-yard scoring run.

The Yellow Jackets have eight sacks, including two each from Simmons, Anree Saint-Armour and T.D. Roof, the son of defensive coordinator Ted Roof.

NOTES: Johnson said the Yellow Jackets must solve the sudden problem with fumbles. He noted the team had no lost fumbles in its previous game against Jacksonville State before losing four of its five fumbles against Pittsburgh. “It’s clearly something we’ve got to get better at or it’s going to cost us a game, no question about it,” Johnson said.


More AP college football at www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25