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UNC defense ekes out a win in shaky performance against Appalachian State

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UNC graduate defensive back Giovanni Biggers (27) interrupts a pass intended for junior Appalachian State wide receiver Dashaun Davis (6) in the nonconference football matchup at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. UNC squeezed past Appalachian State 40-34.

With just over four minutes left in regulation, the Mountaineers took the field at their own 15-yard line. 

North Carolina led, 27-24. Its defense only needed to stop one last drive from Appalachian State, led by Diablo Valley Collegetransfer quarterback Joey Aguilar.

But 12 plays later, the Mountaineers had milked three minutes off the clock and made their way to UNC's 16-yard line, where kicker Michael Hughes nailed a 33-yard field goal to even the score.

Those final minutes of regulation spelled out a recurring problem for the North Carolina defense on Saturday, even as it eventually eked out a 40-34 overtime win: the inability to stop key plays.

“We gave up so many third downs,” head coach Mack Brown said. “We've got to play tighter, we've got to be on them more.”

Saturday's poor defensive showing starkly contrasted to UNC's performance the weekend prior against South Carolina. North Carolina tallied nine sacks while holding the Gamecocks to just 17 points — a feat that seemed like a promising sign for the season ahead.

However, it wasn't the same defense that took the field on Saturday against App State. North Carolina didn't sack Aguilar once, giving him ample time in the pocket to average 12.5 yards per completion.

For a program that's known for its powerful ground game, App State running back Nate Noel's pair of touchdowns and 127 yards shouldn't have come as a surprise. But for the Mountaineers to pull off the upset, they knew that solely relying on rushing wouldn't be enough.

"We have to go out and play our football," App State head coach Shawn Clark said before the game. "If we can't run the football and they make us one-dimensional, then it's going to be a long day, but I have a lot of confidence in our receivers and quarterbacks that they can get the job done."

The Mountaineers followed through on their mission, consistently sneaking wide receivers into the pocket for Aguilar to hit, a strategy that UNC’s secondary struggled to combat.

After UNC missed a 39-yard field goal that would've won the game, UNC's defense crumbled on the first drive of the overtime period as Noel single-handedly rushed the ball into the end zone in three plays. 

However, UNC answered on the offensive end and scored once more in double overtime, leaving it to the defense to finish out the game.

App State's final drive opened with an incomplete pass, giving the North Carolina defense time to settle in. Three plays later, UNC stopped a run and two pass plays for a cumulative gain of only five yards. Game over.

“We had to tighten down a little bit after we seen what they were tryna do to us and cover more,” junior defensive back Alijah Huzzie said. “We had to cover better and give the D-line time to return there.”

After the game, sophomore quarterback Drake Maye likened the win to getting a B on a test that you didn't study for — the best possible outcome for an underprepared team.

In the end, though, the defense held it together when it mattered the most — something that they will have to do repeatedly throughout the season if they have hopes of remaining undefeated. 

“They will not be happy with themselves,” Brown said. “And that's a good thing.”

@PeaceGwen

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Gwen Peace

Gwen Peace is the 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer. Gwen is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and peace, war and defense.