There have been notable defensive plays for the Tar Heels over the past month, but most of them revolve around busted coverages or gaping holes at the line of scrimmage. North Carolina ranked top-25 nationally in total, scoring and rushing defense four weeks ago, but those rankings have plummeted ever since.
UNC’s last three opponents combined for 136 points and 1,632 yards.
On Thursday, UNC once again provided a plethora of notable defensive plays, only this time, the highlights included a goal line stands, third-down stops, forced field goals and an even a pick six.
Virginia finished with 350 yards of offense, yet scored just one touchdown in five red zone opportunities.
“We were so motivated,” defensive tackle Sylvester Williams told reporters following UNC's 37-13 victory. “Giving up 68 points last week motivated us a lot. That was the best thing and also the worst thing that could have happened to us because we refuse to let that happen to us again. And we still had mistakes and gave up big plays, but today we came out and dominated this game on defense.”
The plays started early. On Virginia’s opening drive, defensive end Kareem Martin sacked quarterback Michael Rocco on 3rd-and-3 to force a punt. The Cavaliers reached the red zone on their next possession, but had to settle for a field goal.
After Virginia scored a touchdown on its third drive, UNC’s much-maligned safety Tre Boston ended the Cavs’ fourth possession with a dagger in the form of a 36-yard interception return for touchdown. The junior dotted the play with an exclamation point by plowing over Rocco at the goal line.
“He wasn’t going to deny me from the one,” Boston told reporters following the game. “I played wide receiver back in the day in high school. I just put my foot in the ground and refused to be stopped on the one. I was going to get in.”
North Carolina halted Virginia’s second-half momentum with a defining goal line stand late in the third quarter with the Heels holding a 20-13 lead. Rocco picked up five yards up the middle on 1st-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Perry Jones picked up a yard on second down and Kevin Parks did the same on third, bringing up 4th-and-goal at the 1.
Linebacker Kevin Reddick and Martin blew up Virginia’s offensive line, tackling Parks for a two-yard loss. North Carolina scored a touchdown on its ensuing possession to start the rout.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora couldn't contain his smile when asked how confident he was that his defense would make that pivotal stop.
“How confident was I that they were going to make that goal-line stand?" Fedora said. "I wouldn’t say I was confident. I would say I was excited that they did do it. You don’t expect goal-line stands like that, especially two in one game. When you get down there on the one-yard line or the two-yard line, from an offensive standpoint, you’re expecting to get the ball in, so that was huge for our defense."
The Tar Heels weren’t perfect defensively. There were still missed assignments, miscues and busted coverages. Darius Jennings got behind UNC’s secondary for what would have been an 81-yard scoring strike had it not been for an inopportune bobble and drop. But there were also stats of notes and other plays worthy of mention.
Virginia only managed to convert two of its 15 third-down conversions. Rocco, who completed 29 of his 37 passes – including a school-record 18 in a row – for 300 yards and a career-high four touchdowns against Miami last week, was held to 11-of-16 passing for 155 yards and an interception.
The biggest play of the game, according to Williams, took place in the third quarter. Gio Bernard muffed a punt at UNC’s 12-yard line, giving Virginia a red zone opportunity trailing 20-10. The Cavaliers gained just one yard on the series and settled for a second field goal inside the 20.
“Gio’s an awesome player, but you noticed tonight that he’s human,” Williams said. “By him making that mistake, he put it on us. There have been times when we’ve needed him to carry the team and he’s done that for us. N.C. State, for instance. He made a mistake, so it was our job to go out and carry the team for him.”
The Tar Heels didn’t even review game film on Sunday from its loss to Georgia Tech. The turnaround was too quick, the loss too painful.
UNC carved 55 points off last weekend’s effort. That stat alone speaks volumes about the mindset of a Tar Heel defense striving to finish the season on positive terms.