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Sunday December 5th

Big plays make a difference in UNC football's nail-biting win over Miami

UNC players Tomari Fox (56) and Cedric Gray (33) tackle Miami quarter back Tyler Van Dyke (9) at the game on Oct. 16 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 45-42.
Buy Photos UNC players Tomari Fox (56) and Cedric Gray (33) tackle Miami quarter back Tyler Van Dyke (9) at the game on Oct. 16 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 45-42.

In a matchup between two underperforming teams, it was the big plays that made an impact on the final outcome.

On the first drive of Saturday's bout against Miami, UNC had the first big play break its way after graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler took one to the house for a 51-yard touchdown. The Tar Heels were forced to punt on their second drive, but a 45-yard touchdown reception by sophomore Josh Downs helped push UNC back to an early 14-7 lead.

In tough situations, junior quarterback Sam Howell also accounted for a lot of big plays with four total touchdowns. In a back-and-forth affair, the star gunslinger let it loose on the ground again and again, putting the team on his back and fighting for every inch in a 45-42 nail-biting win.

“I just wanted to leave it all out there on the field for my team, that’s really all it was,” Howell said. “I could’ve slid a couple of times, but I tried to do everything I could to just stay up."

Although the offense showed the ability to take the top off tonight, the Tar Heel defense stepped up when needed. The Hurricanes finished with 421 total yards on offense Saturday — 264 coming through the air — but UNC was able to force three key interceptions that ended up being the deciding factor.

“It's football, so big plays can be made on the offensive side of the ball or the defensive side of the ball,” junior defensive back Cam’Ron Kelly said. “With our preparation and the calls we have, it ended up on our side, so that’s a great thing for us."

Kelly hauled in a key interception of his own late in the second quarter to give the offense an opportunity to pad its lead heading into halftime, but it was sophomore linebacker Cedric Gray who caused the most havoc.

Gray returned his first interception of the night for 21 yards early in the second quarter, and his interception on Miami’s last offensive drive of the game sealed the deal for UNC. 

After the Hurricanes marched the ball all the way down to the 16-yard line down just three points, senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel tipped a third-down pass that was eventually brought down by number 33.

“With Jeremiah tipping the ball, I mean, that thing stayed in the air for an hour and a half,” head coach Mack Brown said. " ... They were all fighting for it and they were all tipping. I said, ‘Somebody just get that ball,’ and obviously we did to make a play to win the game.”

Nothing came easy for the Tar Heels, but the big plays saved the team in a game where they didn’t play their best.

Fans in Kenan Stadium were on the edge of their seats as they saw victory slipping out of their hands late in the fourth quarter, but the huge snag by Gray sent everyone in Carolina Blue home happy.

“It was a long play, but once we saw Ced come down with it, all of the weight was just lifted off of my shoulders,” Gemmel said. “It kind of felt like Duke week a couple of years ago.”

The Tar Heels showed the same fight they did against the Blue Devils two years ago against Miami this week, and when a team plays as hard as the Tar Heels did, big plays tend to happen.

After a disappointing start to the season, UNC was in need of a hard-fought win to toughen its young roster as the team heads deeper into conference play.

And tonight, the big plays made that much-needed victory possible.  

@austinb_unc

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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