UNC hopes late defensive stand against Pitt a turning point

UNC defensive tackle Naz Jones and his defensive teammates were at their best in the fourth quarter on Saturday against Pittsburgh.
UNC defensive tackle Naz Jones and his defensive teammates were at their best in the fourth quarter on Saturday against Pittsburgh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The way Andre Smith tells it, he and his North Carolina teammates on Saturday developed a particular part of their anatomy that had been missing. He laughed when informed that sort of raw description wasn't fit for a family publication.

“My bad,” said Smith, the Tar Heels' sophomore middle linebacker.

And so he tried again to explain UNC's late defensive surge during its 37-36 victory against Pittsburgh. One moment, the Tar Heels couldn't contain the Panthers' offense, which at times on Saturday moved at will. The next, UNC was forcing three-and-out after three-and-out.

“We just locked in and did our job,” Smith said. “And just (played) physical and we knew that we had to play hard, and we had to play with grit.”

That's a characteristic that defined UNC's success last year, during an 11-win season. And it's one that had been missing, especially defensively, through the first three and a half games this season. Until during the second half on Saturday, that is.

Overall, there were “still a lot of disappointing things” for the defense, coordinator Gene Chizik said on Tuesday. And yet when the Tar Heels had no other choice – either come up with defensive stops, or lose – they found a way.

UNC allowed only 59 yards during Pitt's final four drives on Saturday. The final two of those drives lasted three plays apiece before the Panthers punted, and on its ensuing offensive possessions UNC turned those three-and-outs into touchdowns – the last of which came with two seconds remaining.

And so it raises an obvious question with the Tar Heels preparing to play at Florida State on Saturday: Can the UNC’s late defensive stand on Saturday represent a turning point?

“I think so,” Des Lawrence, the senior cornerback, said earlier this week. Chizik and the defensive coaches, Lawrence said, “always talk about” the exact circumstances in which UNC thrived on Saturday: producing defensive stops in tense, tough moments.

“I think that a lot of young guys and a lot of older guys who are first-year starters or are getting a lot of playing time realize what it takes in order to be a gritty team and to get key stops,” Lawrence said.

Time will tell. Though UNC played well defensively late on Saturday, there were still the other three quarters. Entering the fourth quarter, the Panthers were on pace to finish with 491 yards. They scored on five of their first seven drives.

“But where I've got to give them a lot of credit,” Chizik said, “is what I told them, and I was watching it from up top, and they fought. They fought all the way down to the end. …

“So what we've got to find is how to do that throughout the game.”