North Carolina

UNC hangs on for 20-13 victory at Miami

North Carolina receiver Bug Howard (84) looks for running room on a 40-yard pass play from quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) in the first quarter against Miami.
North Carolina receiver Bug Howard (84) looks for running room on a 40-yard pass play from quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) in the first quarter against Miami. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Days after his team’s miserable, rain-soaked loss last week against Virginia Tech, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora defended the Tar Heels’ character – their grit, as he likes to describe it.

He predicted that UNC would respond well to one of the worst defeats of his five-year tenure. And that the Tar Heels did, both early and late on Saturday during their 20-13 victory against No. 16 Miami.

Why UNC won

The Tar Heels built a 20-3 halftime lead and relied mostly on their defense to preserve it during the second half, while the offense failed to score on its first five drives after halftime. Usually, that sort of scoreless stretch might signal disaster for the Tar Heels.

Their defense, though, played one of its finest games of the season. When the Hurricanes began a drive with about 11 ½ minutes remaining, they’d mustered only about 300 yards of offense and 94 rushing yards.

The Tar Heels hadn’t allowed fewer than 182 rushing yards this season. They surrendered 139 on Saturday, and then the defense sealed the victory with less than two minutes remaining with a critical fumble recovery.

What it means

The victory keeps UNC’s goal of winning the Coastal Division within reach. A defeat wouldn’t have ended those hopes, necessarily, but UNC would have needed a lot of help to get back into the division race.

Equally important, the victory continues UNC’s overall upward trajectory. The Tar Heels have now won consecutive road games against top-20 opponents.

Key moment

Not long after UNC linebacker Andre Smith committed a targeting penalty on third-and-18, Miami cut UNC’s lead to 20-13 with about seven minutes to play. Miami forced UNC to punt on its next drive, and the Hurricanes took over on their own 20 with less than two minutes remaining.

Miami then had all the momentum. Moments later, though, Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya fumbled. Jeremiah Clarke, the Tar Heels’ sophomore defensive tackle, recovered, essentially sealing UNC’s victory.

Key player

After struggling – to put it mildly – in the rain and the wind last weekend against Virginia Tech, UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky rediscovered his form, and completed 33 of his 46 attempts for 299 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t a pretty second half for the UNC offense, but it built a halftime lead that turned out to be insurmountable.

Key number

11. That’s how many times UNC stopped Miami on third down. The Hurricanes were 4-for-15 on third down and rarely sustained momentum on offense.

Final word

Another close ACC victory, and another opportunity for Fedora to praise the grit of his team. On a day when the offense wasn’t at its best, especially in the second half, it was the Tar Heels’ defense that preserved an important victory on the road.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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