The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday October 5th

Defense shows resilience in UNC football's OT loss to No. 25 Pittsburgh

UNC head coach Mack Brown walks off the field after a devasting loss at the game against Florida State on Oct. 9 at Kenan Stadium. The Heels lost 35-25.
Buy Photos UNC head coach Mack Brown walks off the field after a devasting loss at the game against Florida State on Oct. 9 at Kenan Stadium. The Heels lost 35-25.

If there’s one thing the North Carolina football team’s first overtime game of the season demonstrated, it’s that the defense can — and will — step up when offensive production is at a standstill.

For a defense that has allowed its opponents to score over 30 points per game this season, this game might seem out of the blue for UNC. But when No. 25 Pittsburgh began stifling the Tar Heels each time they had the ball, resilience on the defensive side of the ball kept things close, despite the final outcome — a 30-23 loss.

“Last week, the offense was the reason we won the game; the defense made a few stops in the end,” head coach Mack Brown said. “Tonight, the defense would have been the reason we won the game and the offense had to make a few plays, and they made the plays to get us back in the game. They just didn't make the plays to finish the game.”

The first half offensive effort was “the worst” Brown had ever seen — with UNC failing to muster a drive that lasted more than four plays.

Five minutes into the first quarter, junior quarterback Sam Howell was sacked for an eight-yard loss. The Tar Heels punted the ball over to the Panthers, who returned the ball to the 20-yard line and scored a touchdown in a mere four plays.

On UNC’s next possession, Howell got sacked again for a nine-yard loss, which resulted in another punt. The ensuing Pittsburgh drive led to another four plays and another touchdown for the Panthers.

Howell got the ball again, and before the clock hit the three-minute mark, was sacked for a third time. Then, Pittsburgh scored three more points off a field goal — talk about getting into a rhythm.

Sound familiar? Looking back at UNC’s previous losses, the offensive line struggled with quarterback protection. Allowing six sacks against Virginia Tech, eight against Georgia Tech and four against Notre Dame — all adding up to over 100 yards lost. 

This game was no different, five sacks allowed for 30 yards lost.

By halftime, UNC scored once, but posted only three first downs and went 0-6 in converting third downs. But though the team was trailing by over two touchdowns, the determination of the Tar Heels remained unfazed.

“We just told everybody to settle down, we've been in this position before,” Howell said. “Don't look over the scoreboard, just keep fighting, keep making plays and we'll see where we're at.”

Much like when UNC came back against unbeaten Wake Forest late in the game just five days earlier, the Tar Heels did the unexpected to tie the score with the Panthers in the last few seconds of regulation. 

Unlike Wake’s contest though, it was the Tar Heel's defense that was ultimately responsible.

Starting to recognize the patterns of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, the defensive line began to not only collapse the pocket, but cover the sidelines, where they found Pickett would often retreat. 

Shutting down the highest-scoring offensive powerhouse in the conference on third down was also on the Tar Heels’ to-do list, mostly so Howell and the rest of UNC’s playmakers could finally find a groove.

“We pretty much looked at each other in our defensive line and said ‘Hey, we need to get the ball back to the offense,’” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “‘We don't need to be on the field longer making them cold.’”

While North Carolina’s defensive line gave Pittsburgh a taste of its own medicine by recording three sacks in the third quarter and smothered any point-scoring opportunity until the end of regulation, the offense gained traction and made up their deficit. When it came down to the wire in overtime, though, the Panthers converted and the Tar Heels didn’t.

Fingers can be pointed at missing a two-point conversion, punting weaknesses, the cold and rainy weather or kicking the field goal at the end of regulation to explain why North Carolina’s comeback bid fell short. 

However, the Tar Heels would have never found their offensive onslaught if it wasn’t for the outstanding resilience — for arguably the first time this season — of the team’s defensive line.

“The defense is the only reason we were in the game,” Brown said. “If the defense hadn't played their hearts out, it would have been a blowout. And then tonight they sure didn't quit.”  

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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