PITTSBURGH — Perhaps lost amid North Carolinas near-complete collapse against Pittsburgh on Saturday was that the Tar Heels defense was at times as dominating as it has been all season.
UNC during its 34-27 victory held the Panthers to 359 yards, and limited them to 4.5 yards per play. In the first half, and in the second quarter, especially, the Tar Heels generated more defensive pressure than they had all season.
The Tar Heels finished with seven sacks their highest total of the season and most since a victory last season against East Carolina. The seven sacks represented UNCs most in an ACC game since 10 against Wake Forest in 2000.
Kareem Martin, who had 3.5 sacks, credited the defensive success more to increased comfort level instead of scheme.
Guys are playing a lot looser now, Martin said. Guys are familiar with everything going on. The game plan is scaled down, and guys are just more comfortable in their positions. Its not that, If I do this, he might take me out or something like that. Guys are just more comfortable.
In addition to his sacks, Martin broke up a pass, had two hurries and forced two fumbles, one of which he recovered. Travis Hughes, the linebacker, recovered Martins first forced fumble at the UNC 24-yard line.
The turnover seemed to ignite UNC, which capitalized and turned it into a touchdown. As for Martin, the first half was his most productive of the season, and he continued his strong play in recent weeks. He said he has been motivated by the approaching end to his time at UNC.
This is my last road game, and I have two more, three more games counting the bowl game that were going to go to play here at UNC, he said. And Ive just got to cherish every opportunity I have to go out there, to try to set myself up for a good future.
The Tar Heels were at their defensive best on Saturday in the second quarter, when they scored 17 points to take a 24-3 halftime lead. UNC allowed the Panthers just 45 yards on 17 plays in the second quarter, and the Tar Heels forced three punts.
Ryan Switzer, the freshman wide receiver, returned one of those for a 65-yard touchdown, which was a prelude to his 61-yard return that provided UNC with the winning margin with about five minutes to play.
The Tar Heels defense wasnt quite as sharp in the second half as it was in the first, but the Panthers scored twice in the fourth quarter after UNC turnovers provided enviable field position. Pitt scored a touchdown after the second of those turnovers, but the Tar Heels held the Panthers to a field goal after theyd recovered a punt on UNCs 28-yard line.
UNC also stopped the Panthers after Switzers second touchdown. Pitt started on its own 34-yard line and needed a touchdown to tie the game in the final minutes. Instead, the Panthers gained 39 yards on eight plays before failing to convert a fourth down.
That final drive was a contrast to the one UNC allowed in a last-second loss against Miami last month. Fedora afterward directed most of his praise for the defense toward Martin.
I was riding Kareem all game, Fedora said. And then I find out he had 3.5 sacks. I mean, what a game for him. Especially in that first half, he was a difference-maker, theres no doubt about it.
Of UNCs 36 touchdowns, freshmen and sophomores have accounted for 28 including all four of the Tar Heels touchdowns on Saturday. Marquise Williams became the first UNC quarterback to run for two touchdowns since Darian Durant in 2001. Lucas Crowley, a freshman, made his first career start at center for UNC. Russell Bodine, the usual center, started at left guard in place of the injured Caleb Peterson.
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