For the first time this year, the narrative was flipped for UNC football in Saturday's 35-28 win over Georgia State — the defensive side of the ball showed up better than the offense.
Head coach Mack Brown said he had a feeling this was going to happen during practice this past week. Knowing the defensive unit hung their heads low from the 40 points they gave up in the fourth quarter of the Appalachian State matchup, he had an inkling that the embarrassment would fuel the line to fix their mistakes.
While the offense didn't play up to the standard that it set the past two contests, the defense showed a vast improvement from the high scoring affairs against Florida A&M and the Mountaineers. After giving up 25 straight points to surrender the lead, the defense held the Panthers scoreless in the fourth quarter to hang onto a narrow victory.
Playing well on both sides of the ball, however, will be the key for the Tar Heels as they march on toward the highly touted conference opponents on their docket.
Redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye and his receiving options put up key points in the first half, picking up 189 passing yards and three touchdowns. The first notable mistake came with less than two minutes left in the half, when Brown went for it on fourth-and-two.
With his line spread out, Maye scrambled under pressure and took his second sack of the night for a loss of eight yards, turning the ball over to the Panthers at UNC’s 31-yard line.
“Honestly, when those things happened, we were excited to get back on the field, because we knew how we prepared, we know the defense that we are,” sophomore linebacker Power Echols said. “When the offense needed us most this week, we capitalized.”
Stops made by Echols and juniors Kaimon Rucker and Desmond Evans forced a 44-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked by junior lineman Myles Murphy to protect North Carolina’s lead — but not for long.
As Georgia State started the third quarter scoring 18 unanwsered points, UNC’s offense couldn't quite answer back.
Attempts to drive the ball down were halted as GSU safety Antavious Lane forced not one, but two fumbles in the second half. In a subsequent third quarter drive, Maye threw a clean pass intended for redshirt first-year wide receiver Kobe Paysour, but it landed in the hands of GSU’s Jacorey Crawford instead.
These offensive mistakes only led to a field goal for the Panthers, though, as Gene Chizik’s defense contained six of the GSU’s eight third-down attempts of the half.
“The situations we put them in: that fourth down, the interception I threw and the fumble, it’s unbelievable,” Maye said. “It shows leadership on defense.”
Much different than the lackluster fourth quarter UNC exhibited in Boone, the Tar Heels continued to press until the end of regulation, pulling four straight stops and scoring another touchdown to squeak by the Panthers with a seven-point lead, 35-28.
After having a winless record on the road last season, UNC has opened up 2-0 away from Chapel Hill.
With two full weeks until their contest against the Fighting Irish, the Tar Heels will have time to recuperate, regroup and get healthy. If weapons like sophomore running back Caleb Hood, junior wide receiver Josh Downs and junior running back D.J. Jones can get healthy, UNC has the potential to look much stronger when it heads back to Kenan Stadium.
And as long as the offense can step up for the defense, too, the Tar Heels could be setting themselves up for more success going forward.
“Still, on a day where we didn't play very well, offensively, we scored 35. That shows you how good this offense can be,” Brown said. “And it puts us in a position where we can have two weeks here to fix a lot of things.”
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