North Carolina coach Larry Fedora wasn’t worried about his football team bouncing back from a disappointing loss.
“I fully expected our guys to respond the way they did because you could tell the way they prepared in practice,” Fedora said after his Tar Heels systematically dismantled previously unbeaten The Citadel 41-7 on Saturday in Kenan Stadium.
“They were locked in and practiced really well, and so when you do that usually you’re going to play that way,” the UNC coach said.
Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw three touchdown passes, the sixth time this season he’s reached that mark. Senior tailback T.J. Logan contributed two highlight-reel plays for touchdowns with a one-handed grab of a scoring pass and a 100-yard kickoff return. And UNC, which had earned some notoriety as the only college football team without an interception this season, finally got one.
Free safety Dominique Green turned it into a pick-six with his 58-yard return for a touchdown that made it 28-0 in the second quarter. The Tar Heels came up with four turnovers in all, including two fumble recoveries by nickel back M.J. Stewart.
Green said that it was embarrassing for the team to go so long without an interception.
“It was a bad feeling,” he said. “To see that we were the only team in the college football league without an interception, we knew we had to make a change. I feel bad that it’s so late, but I’m glad it happened.”
The contest had all the makings of a “trap” game for the Tar Heels (8-3). UNC had dropped a 28-27 decision at Duke on Nov. 10 and will have a shortened week of preparation before Friday’s noon regular-season finale with its other local rival, N.C. State.
“We were worried about that football team,” Fedora said of The Citadel. “We knew that they were a really good football team, that they would control the clock and that our guys were going to have to steal a few possessions. Defensively we did that. We had four turnovers, which was a tremendous thing, and then we made some game-changing plays on special teams.”
The Citadel (10-1), ranked No. 6 in the FCS, entered as one of only four undefeated teams in Division I, with No. 1 Alabama and No. 14 Western Michigan in the FBS and No. 1 Sam Houston State in the FCS. And it owned a school-record six road victories this season.
The Bulldogs also ranked No. 1 among all Division I schools in rushing, averaging 359.9 yards per game out of their wishbone offense. UNC meanwhile ranked dead last in the ACC in rushing.
That part of the game lived up to expectations. The Citadel rushed for 344 yards, controlled the clock for a whopping 42:25, and outgained UNC in first downs 21-15. And yet the Bulldogs were never in the game, getting a mop-up-time touchdown on Grant Drakeford’s 28-yard run in the fourth quarter after UNC led 41-0 after three quarters.
The Citadel had UNC’s attention early, however. Behind the bruising work of fullback Tyler Renew, the Bulldogs carved out a seven-minute, 67-yard drive on their opening possession to the UNC 8-yard line, where they stalled because of a false start penalty.
Cody Clark then missed a 25-yard field goal wide to the left. He had connected on 12 of 15 on the season and hadn’t missed inside 40 yards all season, but The Citadel would never have the upper hand again.
Fedora said the Tar Heels settled in defensively and made some adjustments that shut off the inside run after that drive.
“We had a couple calls going in, based on things they like to do, like that fullback belly dive,” UNC defensive end Malik Carney said. “That was one of their top lead plays. We knew we had to stop that. We had our D-tackles pinch in on the center, work a little B-gaps to close. It made them go to their other plays.”
UNC meanwhile took control on Trubisky’s passing, 11-of-20 for 184 yards. He started with a first-quarter strike from 19 yards out to Brandon Fritts, the sophomore tight end’s first TD catch of the season, and then showed UNC’s quick-strike mentality on the following drive with a 72-yard bomb to senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer for the second touchdown.
“We got a Cover-4 look,” Switzer said. “The safety bit on the hook route by Carl (Tucker). I was one-on-one with the cornerback (Ben Roberts), and Mitch put the ball where it needed to be for me to haul it in and score.”
Trubisky’s third touchdown pass initially didn’t appear where it needed to be. Logan, the backup tailback, broke wide open down the middle, and Trubisky nearly overthrew him. But Logan leaped and made a spectacular one-handed grab that Fedora claimed would make all the highlight shows Sunday.
“We were running that play this whole week,” Logan said. “I knew I was gonna get a chance at it. Mitch threw a great ball. I thought he threw it kind of far, but I kind of got back up on my horse and reached my hand up, and it stuck.”
“I overthrew him a little bit, but he made me right,” Trubisky said.
Logan’s other big play came on the second-half kickoff, which resulted in his second kickoff return for a touchdown this season and a school-record fourth for his career.
“It’s the base return we’ve been running since we started here,” Logan said. “Khris Francis threw me a great block, and it just opened up. I only had to beat the kicker.”
Logan’s second touchdown of the day gave the Tar Heels a 38-0 lead only 14 seconds into the third quarter and effectively put the game on ice. Nick Weiler would add the second of his two field goals, connecting from 23 and 41 yards on the afternoon.
“We all wanted to get that nasty taste out of our mouth, losing to Duke,” Carney said. “Just get back out there and get a good win under our belt.”