North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina defense steps up when needed most

15 October 2016: University of Miami Hurricanes running back Mark Walton (1) runs during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL (Photo by Aaron Gilbert/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by Aaron Gilbert/Icon Sportswire

It wasn’t the script anyone had predicted.

North Carolina’s 20-13 win over Miami produced neither the high score nor the offensive fireworks many expected. When the Tar Heels desperately needed someone to make a play in the final moments to fend off the Hurricanes’ comeback effort, it wasn’t the offense that came up with the game-changer. Instead, coordinator Gene Chizik’s defense came through in the clutch.

That’s a welcome development for a UNC team that has seen its fair share of troubles on that side of the ball this year.

With just over a minute and a half to play, Miami trailed 20-13 with the ball in its own territory. The Canes had put up 10 unanswered points, and North Carolina hadn’t scored in the second half, seeing one drive end with Miami blocking a Nick Weiler field goal attempt and another with the offense getting stuffed on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line.

As the rain poured down late, however, just a week after Virginia Tech pummeled the Heels 34-3 in rainy and windy conditions, Carolina thrived in the wet weather.

Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya dropped back to pass from his own 31 before getting hit from behind by UNC defensive end Malik Carney. The ball popped out, and defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke scooped it off the ground, bringing it to the Hurricanes’ 21. The Tar Heel offense successfully played keep-away until time ran off the clock, sealing the outcome.

The defense made a statement not just in that moment, but on the day as a whole.

North Carolina allowed its third-fewest yards of any game this season on Saturday, surrendering 363 yards of total offense. On the year, Miami averages 422.7 in that category.

The Heels also forced the Canes into field-goal situations instead of giving up touchdowns, and on one of those occasions, they blocked Michael Badgley’s 35-yard try.

While Kaaya looked well below 100 percent after taking a beating against Florida State a week earlier, the Carolina defense kept running back Mark Walton in check. Walton, who ranks in the ACC’s top four in rushing yards (566) and rushing touchdowns (8), was held to 82 yards on 3.4 yards per rushing attempt.

It was a night-and-day difference compared to some of UNC’s other defensive performances against the run this fall. It gave up 5.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns against Georgia, 5.1 yards per carry and four touchdowns versus Pitt, and 5.2 yards per carry and five scores at Florida State. Against Miami, the Tar Heels allowed 3.9 yards per carry and only one score on the ground.

Larry Fedora’s squad is in excellent position if the defense builds off its Saturday showing. Three of North Carolina’s four remaining ACC opponents rank in the bottom half of the league in yards per offensive play, and all are outside the top five. The only other foe UNC will face is The Citadel of the FCS.

North Carolina needs Virginia Tech to slip up once more before it can control its own destiny in the ACC’s Coastal Division. If the Tar Heels take advantage of a lighter back-end of the schedule, though, they won’t leave the Hokies much margin for error.

If Chizik’s defense continues to play the way it did in Week 7, North Carolina just might find itself playing for the league title for the second season in a row.

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