It had been a long first half of the season for the North Carolina defense – six games defined, largely, by an assortment of all things bad: injuries and personnel problems and an inability to stop opposing teams, especially opposing running backs.
But Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ head coach, had reminded the defense that its time would come and that, eventually, it would have to win a game in the final moments the way the offense won games in the final seconds against Pittsburgh and Florida State.
That time, it turned out, came on Saturday at Miami. The story of the game: the defense coming through in the final moments to seal the victory for UNC. As is the custom here, some day-after thoughts on UNC’s important victory at Miami:
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The defense played its most complete game of the season.
Let Nazair Jones, the senior defensive tackle, sum up what he and his defensive teammates had been feeling during the first half of the season: “We don’t want to always put the pressure on the offense, and we don’t want to have the media talk bad about the defense every week.” There will be no bad-talking the defense this week.
The Tar Heels held Miami to 363 yards, the fewest UNC had allowed in an ACC game outside of the monsoon game against Virginia Tech last week. Most significant of all, UNC held Miami to 139 yards rushing. That might not sound all that impressive on the surface, but it was the fewest rushing yards the Tar Heels have allowed this season, and 42 of those yards came on a single run in the fourth quarter.
Malik Carney and Jeremiah Clarke come through in the end.
Carney and Clarke are two sophomores on the defensive line, two younger players who entered the season as reserves. Circumstances have forced them into more prominent roles, and here they were on Saturday, on the field together for Miami’s final drive, part of a defense desperately trying to seal the victory for the Tar Heels.
Carney came through with the sack and strip when he tackled Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya and forced him to fumble. And Clarke came through with the recovery, eventually, after he’d tried to pick up the ball and return it. One of the best parts of their story on Saturday: They were teammates at T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va. Yes, that’s the same high school from “Remember the Titans.”
THE NOT-SO GOOD
The offense was shut out in the second half.
Overall, it was a bounce-back performance for the UNC offense. Almost anything would have been after it produced 131 yards in the rain and the wind last week against Virginia Tech. On Saturday at Miami, Mitch Trubisky threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns. Bug Howard finished with 10 catches for 156 yards. Ryan Switzer caught nine passes, becoming UNC’s all-time leader in receptions.
But in the second half, the offense didn’t score on any of its six drives. One of those ended with the Tar Heels failing to convert a fourth-and-goal from the 1, where Trubisky was stopped short of the goal line on a quarterback sneak. Credit the Hurricanes’ defense, which has been among the nation’s best. Miami limited UNC in the second half the way that no other team has done in relatively normal weather conditions (though it did rain hard during the fourth quarter).
Overall, the best part about the offense might have been what it didn’t do. It didn’t commit any turnovers, and when the Tar Heels play defense well and don’t turn the ball over, they’re difficult to beat.
UNC committed 11 penalties, six of them false starts.
The Tar Heels had a knack on Saturday for moving backward after they’d made a lot of progress. They committed four false-start penalties in the red zone, two of them inside the Miami 5-yard line. Those mistakes didn’t come back and haunt UNC in the end but … they could have, and perhaps would have had UNC failed to win.
The first two false start penalties contributed to UNC settling for a field goal on its first drive. The other two false starts in the red zone didn’t wind up hurting UNC, which overcame those penalties by scoring touchdowns. Even so, the Tar Heels made it more difficult than it should have been.
THE LOOK AHEAD
UNC traveled to Miami needing a win to keep alive its goal of winning the Coastal Division. It left right back in the thick of the division race, and perhaps back in the driver’s seat, again, given Virginia Tech’s surprising loss at Syracuse. UNC’s most difficult ACC games – against Pittsburgh, at Florida State, against Virginia Tech, at Miami – are now in the past.
The Tar Heels finished their most difficult four-game stretch of the season with a 3-1 record. That sets UNC up nicely the rest of the way.