The No. 13 North Carolina football team faces Georgia Tech this weekend, hoping to redeem a stunning 45-22 loss in Atlanta last season.
As the Tar Heels close out the year, they are focused on adding to the late-game aggressiveness and standout plays that have defined them thus far.
Senior defensive back Giovanni Biggers said many players are using this season to make a statement after last year's underwhelming 6-7 record. Biggers remembers the Georgia Tech game as a smack in the face, especially after the team’s 17-10 opening loss against Virginia Tech.
He attributed the group's improvement to the new player-led team mentality this season. Instead of working harder to please their coaches or climb in the rankings, Biggers said players worked harder because of their bond as a team.
“I think the biggest thing guys have learned is, doing it for the guy next to you, not wanting to let the guy next to you down,” Biggers said.
Specifically, the defense is working on bolstering its strengths. It’s been clear throughout the season that the Tar Heels can shine under pressure in late-game situations, and last week, the team shut out Wake Forest completely in the fourth quarter after giving up five touchdowns entering the final period.
According to Biggers, assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik told the unit that the goal was “40 minutes of nonstop domination.” Biggers also said Chizik was a positive influence for the team at halftime, and said that Chizik never needed to yell at the team because they motivated themselves.
Criticism of UNC’s defense has mounted as the team continues to win by close margins. Meanwhile, the offense takes the lion’s share of praise, especially for its aggressiveness and late-game comebacks.
Graduate tight end Kamari Morales believes the criticism should be more equally split. He thinks the offense should be putting up enough points to offset the other team, no matter the score.
"It’s our job to go plus one,” Morales said. “So if the defense gives up 100 points, we better score 101, plus.”
The offense — especially the Drake Maye-Josh Downs passing connection — seems committed to that goal. Whether or not the Heisman Award voters see this in the Tar Heels' redshirt first-year quarterback remains to be seen.
Earlier this week, head coach Mack Brown mentioned that he believes Maye deserves to be in Heisman consideration. Morales followed this sentiment, calling his signal caller the best quarterback in the nation.
“I don’t care who’s in New York," Morales said. “That’s the only vote that matters in my personal opinion.”
While Maye takes most of the spotlight, Morales also praised Downs for his natural ability, especially against Wake Forest.
The junior wide receiver suffered a full body cramp that took him out of the game briefly, but managed to catch three touchdowns beforehand. Even battling through injury, Downs made a key reception late in the fourth quarter that allowed the Tar Heels to eventually kick the game-winning field goal.
On Tuesday, Maye called Downs “as special as it gets” and joked that a fourth touchdown would’ve happened had he not missed time with his cramps. Morales took the praise one step further, and he said he knew Downs would be special from the first day he saw him training in spring 2020.
“I’ll never forget it,” Morales said. “We were in an indoor facility and I saw him run one route. I called my dad that day and said, ‘That boy’s different.'”
With two games remaining before the team faces Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, the Tar Heels must remain focused on small details to avoid potential upset bids. From there, the team can use these matchups to gain preparation for its final bout with the Tigers, and potentially, clinch the program's first ACC title since 1980.
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