CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Ryan Houston ran for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to help No. 19 North Carolina beat No. 22 Georgia Tech 28-7 on Saturday.
Cameron Sexton added two touchdown passes for the Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who earned a critical win in the muddled Coastal Division race and ensured their first winning season in seven years.
North Carolina - among the nation's leaders in turnover margin - also hung in defensively against the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense and converted a pair of fumbles into Houston's touchdowns to break the game open.
Georgia Tech (7-3, 4-3) finished with 326 yards rushing and 423 total yards, but never could sustain a scoring drive nor push deeper than the Tar Heels' 23-yard line 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.
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 Shaun 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 Mark 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.
Draughn finished with 90 yards rushing, while Houston had a career-high 74. That offset a shaky passing day from Sexton, who went just 7-for-16 for 100 yards but found Hakeem Nicks for an easy 31-yard score on fourth down with 4:11 left to seal it. Nicks later added a 22-yard catch late in the game from T.J. Yates, making his first appearance from a broken ankle suffered in September, to set the school's career receiving yardage record.
Dwyer, the league's No. 2 rusher, ran for 157 yards, but the Yellow Jackets had several miscues that kept them scoreless when the game was in doubt.
They failed to convert either of their fourth-down tries - neither more than 3 yards - and Scott Blair went wide right on field goals of 40 and 52 yards in the first half. Then, when Shaw replaced an ineffective Josh Nesbitt and directed a drive to North Carolina's 29 in the third quarter, the Yellow Jackets were penalized for a chop block and holding that pushed the ball to midfield. That possession ended with Blair's quick-kick punt that rolled into the end zone for a touchback.