Boston, defense lead UNC past Cincinnati in Belk Bowl


UNC defenders Tre Boston (10), Brandon Ellerbe (20), and Tim Scott (7) try to tackle Cincinnati’s Ralph David Abernathy IV (1).

CHARLOTTE — Tre Boston saw Brendon Kay’s pass sail well over its mark and steer course directly toward Dominique Green. He saw the ball deflect off of the North Carolina freshman’s fingertips, and he saw it as a sign from God — a blessing — that the ball suddenly floated toward him.

He wrapped his hands around it — the last football he’d touch in a collegiate game — and he didn’t let go of it. He held onto it even as the referee asked him to return it. And after the offense finished off UNC’s 39-17 win against Cincinnati on the ensuing drive, and after the Tar Heels celebrated their 2013 Belk Bowl Championship in on-field ceremony, he still had that same ball in his hands, standing outside of the UNC locker room, smiling and showing it off to Cincinnati players as they walked by.

“I gotta put it up in the shrine,” said Boston, as he held the ball out in front of him. “My mom has a nice little trophy case for me since I was a little kid. I gotta put this in the case.”

For the senior safety, the interception ball symbolized a reward for what he called four crazy years at UNC. There was the NCAA investigation that landed UNC with probation and a postseason ban a year ago. There were the coaching changes: Butch Davis then Everett Withers and now Larry Fedora. Even this season — with UNC free from its bowl ban — the Tar Heels had more than their fair share of struggles, beginning the season 1-5, then losing starting quarterback Bryn Renner to a season-ending shoulder injury Nov. 2.

“I promise you, next year will be even better,” Fedora screamed over the Bank of America Stadium PA system, drenched in blue Gatorade, following the victory. His players put on their white Belk Bowl championship hats and ran to their home end zone, jumping up over the wall to high-five enthusiastic UNC fans.

“It’s a lot of emotion because I was just mentioning in the locker room that after the Miami (loss), we started questioning ourselves,” quarterback Marquise Williams said. “We knew we had to get it together, and we knew we had to find ways to win.”

But the adversity continued through Saturday, with Tar Heel after Tar Heel going down with injuries — including senior left tackle James Hurst, who suffered a non-displaced fibula fracture in his left leg.

Going into the contest, UNC’s (7-6) defense had been most sapped by injury, leaving redshirt linebacker Nathan Staub as its sole healthy linebacker. Because of that lack of depth, Boston said Fedora asked him three weeks ago to move to Will linebacker — a position Boston had never played in his career.

Nevertheless, he made the move, and he spent the last 10 practices learning the ins and outs of the position. With linebacker Travis Hughes out and Jeff Schoettmer limited, the entire UNC defense had to learn to adjust to its new alignment.

It responded with one of its best defensive performances of the season.

Taking advantage of an undersized Cincinnati offensive line that was missing two of its starting guards due to injury, the UNC defense blitzed heavily, forcing five sacks for a loss of 51 yards. The Tar Heels got to Kay in Cincinnati’s first three drives of the game — the third sack coming in the end zone for a safety that gave UNC a 9-0 lead.

“From what I remember, we were dominant in that first half defensively — we were all over the quarterback,” Fedora said. “We moved around a little bit more up front. A few more stunts, a couple more blitzes that were a little more exotic than we had been doing because we were going to be playing with a safety at linebacker for the majority of the game.”

That safety tallied nine tackles in the game, leading the team. And his ability to lock down a new position allowed the rest of the defense to fall into place.

“You gotta give Tre Boston a lot of credit,” said senior defensive end Kareem Martin. “He really put in the time and effort to learn everything that we wanted him to do. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he was in the box down there all game, and I’m just proud of him for doing that for me and the team.”

Boston said the adjustment wasn’t a difficult one — being on the team for four years, he said he knew where everyone was supposed to be and where he would fit in as a linebacker.

After the team began the season 1-5 and the defense struggled with missed assignments, Boston said that he’s seen the defensive unit develop its identity throughout the course of this season and that he’s proud of freshmen like safeties Brian Walker and Green and cornerback Desmond Lawrence.

“To see those guys really play and get starts and play well, it’s crazy,” said Boston, who along with cornerback Jabari Price, has tried to act as a mentor for them. “Those guys are just freshmen. We know those guys are better than us when we were freshmen. It’s crazy to see what those guys are going to do with their next three years.”

Unlike those freshmen, Boston already knows how his UNC career will end — he’ll have a football in a trophy case at home to signify it. After that football tipped off of Green’s fingertips in the game’s final minutes, Boston pulled the freshman aside to give him one last lesson, a hint of what to expect in his UNC future:

“That was God paying me off for four years of hard work.”

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