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UNC defense shows growth in year two under Chizik with nine sacks against South Carolina

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UNC senior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) rushed South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler (77) during the Mayo Classic football game against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. UNC beat USC 31-17.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As Mack Brown walked out of the UNC locker room at Bank of America Stadium late Saturday night, he paused to plant a kiss on the cheek of Kaimon Rucker.

UNC's senior edge rusher beamed back at his coach, not saying a word.

He didn't have to. Rucker's performance in North Carolina's 31-17 victory over South Carolina spoke for itself.

Rucker led a dominant UNC pass rush with two sacks and six solo tackles as North Carolina's front seven gave South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler fits all night. The Tar Heels took him down nine times — the Tar Heels' second-most sacks in a game since 2000 — and completely eliminated the Gamecocks' ground game.

'Show, don't speak' had become somewhat of a guiding principle for UNC's defensive players after a disappointing 2022, in which they allowed 436.5 yards per game. Only 15 out of 131 FBS teams gave up more yardage per game last year.

The North Carolina defense showed on Saturday that it's ready to change the narrative. But the players won't belabor the point — they'd prefer to make that statement through their on-field play.

"We're tired of the talking," junior linebacker Power Echols told reporters during training camp on Aug. 3. “We wanna show everybody that hasn't seen what we can do, what we can do. I feel like we just wanna put [the doubts] to bed with our actions and not our words.”

Early three-and-out sets the tone

After receiving the ball first, the Gamecocks promptly punted it away. Defensive back Alijah Huzzie, a transfer from East Tennessee State, broke up a pass intended for South Carolina star receiver Antwane Wells Jr.

"[The three-and-out] definitely set the tone for the game," senior linebacker Cedric Gray said.

North Carolina forced a punt five times and caused a turnover on downs four times on Saturday. 

The Tar Heels were by no means perfect on the defensive side of the ball, though. The secondary struggled to prevent explosive plays, giving up nine completions of more than 15 yards, and South Carolina's Xavier Legette antagonized redshirt first-year cornerback Tayon Holloway with nine catches for 178 yards.

But even when the UNC defense would bend, it seldom broke.

South Carolina marched within 25 yards of the goal three times in the fourth quarter, but in those sequences, the Gamecocks were held to only one field goal and failed to convert on fourth down twice. Sacks from senior nose tackle Tomari Fox, graduate transfer linebacker Amari Gainer and Rucker ensured that South Carolina only came away with three points in the final quarter.

"It's satisfying, you know, as an edge rusher — just seeing your boys get sacks after sacks even though I'm getting double-teamed, triple-teamed," Rucker said.

Maye credits defense in victory

On Saturday, Heisman Trophy hopeful Drake Maye found himself thanking the defense after the game. 

Following a shaky performance in which Maye threw two interceptions, he told reporters, "I think the defense won us the game tonight."

That's a stark contrast to last season, when North Carolina's offense had to routinely make up for a lack of defensive intensity. Perhaps the best example of that phenomenon was the 63-61 win over Appalachian State in which UNC allowed 40 points in the fourth quarter. 

"[The offense] definitely bailed us out a few times last year," Gray admitted. "But, you know, like I said, we have each other's backs."

Brown said the biggest thing that's changed about the defense since that debacle is the players' maturity. 

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"They didn't pull the old 'poor me' like they did at App State last year in the fourth quarter," Brown said. "This should really build on their confidence."

That confidence stems from comfort.

After a five-year break from coaching, Gene Chizik was rehired to UNC's staff in 2022 as the assistant head coach for defense. His second go-round with North Carolina began less smoothly, but both Chizik and his players are more comfortable in their roles, Brown said on Saturday.

The Tar Heels will have a fitting opportunity to prove that their defensive effort wasn't just a flash in the pan when they face App State in Chapel Hill next weekend.

"We can definitely build off this," Gray said "We're not going backwards."

@lucasthomae

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Lucas Thomae

Lucas Thomae is the 2023-24 sports managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as an assistant sports editor and summer editor. Lucas is a senior pursuing a major in journalism and media with a minor in data science.