After a subpar performance in a 23-point loss at Georgia Tech last weekend, the North Carolina football responded in a big way against rival Duke on Saturday.
The Tar Heels' defense played arguably its best game of the season in the 38-7 win, holding the Blue Devils to just seven points and recovering a fumble, which was returned 63 yards by senior safety Trey Morrison for a touchdown.
“We played our best defense of the year and maybe since we’ve been here,” head coach Mack Brown said. “I’m really, really proud of those guys. The two turnovers and the sacks – it made them change their offensive game plan for the second half.”
UNC was able to make strides on defense partially due to the pressure the team placed on Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg. After registering just one sack against the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels kept Holmberg on the move all game, forcing five sacks, nine tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries.
Along with the increased pressure, UNC’s defense also fared better on third down, holding the Blue Devils to a mere 2-15 on third down conversions.
“We practice third downs a lot in practice,” sophomore defensive lineman Myles Murphy said. “We get our pass rush mentality going and we just get to the quarterback.”
Although Duke running back Mataeo Durant continued his hot start to the season with 116 yards on the ground, the Tar Heels showed improvement in the run-stuffing department after allowing 261 yards to the Yellow Jackets last weekend.
After looking confused and out of position at times against the Yellow Jackets underneath the bright lights of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the communication was also much better for the Tar Heel defense Saturday.
The talent level has been there all season for UNC, but the team had yet to put together a complete and well-rounded performance on the defensive side of the ball to this point of the season.
And when the Blue Devils came to town, something seemed to click.
When players are in the right position and are aware of what is going on, big plays tend to happen. In Saturday's win, the Tar Heels reaped the benefits of playing a smart and physical game.
“There are three things that you can attribute it to: your effort, your physicality and communication,” junior safety Cam’Ron Kelly said. “We did all three of those things and guess what? We are all Division 1 college football players, somebody is going to make a play on the other side sometimes and you just have to bounce back and that’s what we did.”
If the defense continues to play like it did on Saturday, the Tar Heels will have a better chance to compete without having to rely on playing catch-up, something the team has done frequently over the past few seasons. UNC has built an identity of being a fourth quarter team, but will look to build on this complete performance and climb back into the ACC Coastal race.
Apart from a few big plays, UNC’s defense dominated Duke, and Brown’s nerves were eased at least temporarily after being put to the test in Atlanta.
“When you can play great defense like we did today, the game is never in doubt,” Brown said. “We gave up three runs and a long pass and that’s about all I remember. Everything else we were all over them.”
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