In a back-and-forth battle, the No. 17 North Carolina Tar Heels (8-1, 5-0 ACC) knocked off the Virginia Cavaliers (3-6, 1-5 ACC), 31-28, on Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
After taking the opening kickoff out to the UNC 35-yard line, the Cavaliers went to work. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong started Virginia's initial drive with a 20-yard connection to junior tight end Sackett Wood Jr. Three plays later, Armstrong kept the ball on a option-read and darted into the end zone.
On the next possession, UNC redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye’s 26-yard run drove the Tar Heels into the red zone for the first time. But a false start later in the same drive forced North Carolina to settle for a field goal.
Both teams would go scoreless for the remainder of the first quarter. North Carolina took over on its own 20-yard line, following a UVA pooch punt by Armstrong. In a methodical drive — which spanned almost six minutes and 13 plays — Maye reversed field on a quarterback scramble and found pay dirt to give UNC the lead, 10-7.
Virginia would respond quickly though, using its bruising run game to march down the field. With a little over two minutes left in the first half, first-year running back Xavier Brown’s first career touchdown helped the Cavaliers build a 14-10 lead heading into halftime.
Out of the break, North Carolina started with possession. Maye found junior wide receiver Josh Downs on a deep post to put the Tar Heels in plus territory. Shortly after, sophomore running back Elijah Green sliced his way in for a touchdown, giving UNC the lead again.
North Carolina’s lead was short lived, however, as Armstrong found Wood Jr. open down the sideline — a strike that would set up a one-yard touchdown run that gave Virginia a 21-17 advantage
Trailing for the third time, Maye and North Carolina’s offense responded. On the Tar Heels’ next two offensive drives, UNC found the end zone with Downs and Green, respectively. Green’s receiving touchdown extended North Carolina’s lead to 31-21.
North Carolina’s defense stepped up in the final quarter, forcing UVA punts before conceding a touchdown with just over three minutes left in the game. Armstrong’s second rushing touchdown proved to be the final scoring play of the afternoon, and the Tar Heels prevailed 31-28.
Who stood out?
Many of North Carolina’s wideouts struggled to find separation against the Cavaliers' stout secondary, but not Downs. The Biletnikoff Award watch list honoree torched Virginia for a career-high 15 catches with 166 yards and a touchdown.
In the absence of sophomore running back Caleb Hood — who was declared out for the remainder of the season due to injury this week — sophomore Elijah Green slotted into the lead back role for the Tar Heels. Green was serviceable with the increase in snaps, racking up 91 yards on the ground and scoring two touchdowns.
Junior linebacker Cedric Gray has been the catalyst for the Tar Heels’ defensive unit this season — leading the teams in total tackles. On a day where the defensive line struggled to break through into the back field, Gray stood as a mark of consistency in the second line of attack, tallying a career-high 16 tackles.
When was it decided?
The two teams traded scoring drives throughout most of the afternoon, with neither squad opening up a sizable lead until the final quarter. Green’s 22-yard score off a swing pass extended UNC’s advantage to 10.
North Carolina’s defense was able to hold the Cavaliers to one touchdown in the fourth quarter, helping seal the Tar Heels’ eighth win.
Why does it matter?
With the win, the Tar Heels further cement their standing atop of the Coastal Division. With at least a two-game lead over each divisional opponent, North Carolina will have an opportunity to win the Coastal next week on the road.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels wrap up their two-game road stint at Wake Forest. Saturday night’s contest is set to start at 7:30 p.m.
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