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.