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UNC football's defense did what it needed to do in 42-24 win over Pitt — be average

<p>Senior defensive back Don Chapman (2), junior defensive back Storm Duck (3), and junior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) celebrate during UNC's homecoming football game against Pitt at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. UNC beat Pitt 42-24.</p>
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Senior defensive back Don Chapman (2), junior defensive back Storm Duck (3), and junior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) celebrate during UNC's homecoming football game against Pitt at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. UNC beat Pitt 42-24.

Tony Grimes pointed to the UNC end zone and began jogging down the field in celebration before the officials confirmed what he knew to be true — junior linebacker Cedric Gray had recovered the ball at midfield.

With about eleven and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter, Gray met Pitt’s junior running back Israel Abanikanda as he rushed up the middle of the field and stripped the ball away in a play UNC head coach Mack Brown said “was the difference in the ballgame.”

“(Pitt) still had a chance to score,” Brown said. “Our defense has been so inconsistent that that game wasn’t over.”

The play was critical in swinging the momentum toward the Tar Heels, whose 28 unanswered points closed out their 42-24 win over Pitt. Moreover, they stopped a player Brown called “the best running back in the country" earlier in the week.

While UNC’s defense allowed Abanikanda to score three touchdowns and accumulate 127 rushing yards, Brown was still proud of his defense’s showing. For a team that ranks in the bottom 30 of the FBS in rushing defense, the Tar Heels did exactly what they needed to do against the nation’s leader in scoring and all-purpose yards — be average.

UNC's defense wasn't stellar by any means. 

Blown coverages in the secondary were a glaring issue on Saturday as Pitt picked up five receptions of 20 or more yards. However, North Carolina's defense did what it needed to do by limiting explosive plays from Abanikanda and keeping the Tar Heels close in the game before eventually shutting out the Panthers in the fourth quarter.

Despite Abanikanda’s evasiveness, UNC held the running back under his average for rushing yards and yards per carry, something Brown credits to the evolution of his defense.

“I’m so proud of our lines of scrimmage now… we can stop people on short yardage on defense now and that’s not something we’ve been able to do before,” Brown said.

On a night in which redshirt first-year Drake Maye threw for 388 yards and five touchdowns, the quarterback credited UNC’s defense for making big stops that gave him favorable field position. 

“As an offense, running out on the field at about midfield is a good feeling, any time you’re doing that,” Maye said of Gray’s recovery in the fourth quarter. “It gets the adrenaline going.”

On UNC’s drive following Gray’s momentous play, Maye led the Tar Heels down the field in just three plays for a touchdown that put North Carolina up 35-24, its biggest lead up to that point in the game.

Gray's recovery wasn’t the only key defensive stop the Tar Heels had against Pitt's No. 2.

Running towards midfield in the second quarter, sophomore linebacker Power Echols pumped his fist in the air after combining with graduate jack Chris Collins to take down Abanikanda, forcing a fourth down on a third-and-one. The play kept UNC at a competitive 17-14 score, staying on Pitt's heels before heading into the half.

Later, with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter, UNC completed a defensive stop to keep the team within three points. The Tar Heels forced the Panthers to punt thanks to three critical plays — an incomplete pass on a hurry from sophomore defensive lineman Jahvaree Ritzie, a stop of Abanikanda by sophomore defensive back DeAndre Boykins and a sack of Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis by junior defensive lineman Kaimon Rucker and sophomore linebacker RaRa Dillworth.

Rucker said he couldn’t be “any prouder of our defense” for remaining tough despite being in a deficit for most of the game. The junior added that the win was the "cherry on top" following comments from Pitt linebacker Tylar Wiltz that seemed to call into question the Tar Heels' physicality.

“We have a lot of teams that talk about how tough they are, how they want to take our quarterback out, but we just showed we don’t have to do all that talking,” Rucker said. “We don’t have to say what we’re going to do to be tough, we’ll just show you.”

@shelbymswanson 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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