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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC defense gets crucial stops, intercepts the ball twice against Minnesota

Toward the end of Saturday’s game against Minnesota, UNC football head coach Mack Brown ran over to the defensive huddle to rile up his team enough to put the game away once and for all.

But, senior linebacker Cedric Gray had beaten him to it. 

“By the time I get there, Cedric Gray is saying, ‘This is the most important drive in the game, and here’s why and here's what you got to do,’” Brown said. “I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m good. We got a coach in that huddle.’”

Veterans like Gray shined in No. 20 North Carolina's 31-13 victory over Minnesota, in which the defense rebounded from a shaky showing in a double-overtime thriller against Appalachian State. The reactive hands of junior linebacker Power Echols and graduate defensive back Armani Chatman, coupled with pressure on the quarterback, limited the Golden Gophers to just one touchdown. The secondary was active as well — it was the first game since 2021 in which the Tar Heel defense intercepted the ball more than once.

“We just said that we ain't going to allow what happened last week to beat us this week,” Echols said.

On Saturday, UNC's defense allowed Minnesota to convert on just three of its 12 third-down situations. Brown said playing better gap control was a point of emphasis for the defense after the App State game. 

Echols' pick halfway through the first quarter shut down Minnesota in its first drive of the game.

To grab his first interception of the season and third of his career, Echols said he paid attention to how Gray pressured the quarterback into throwing off his back foot. He watched the tight end tip the ball and got into position to make the catch before it bounced to the ground.

Chatman grabbed the team’s second interception in the end zone with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter, which prevented Minnesota from making it a one-score game. 

The graduate student was unavailable for most of the spring because of injury and a shoulder operation, but Brown said the coaching staff has been watching him improve in practice this fall to earn some playing time. 

He added that the usual go-to, redshirt first-year defensive back Tayon Holloway, lost a bit of confidence because of "a couple of tough plays" in the two previous games, so the coaches decided to put Chatman, "the old-head", in the game. 

“First few snaps [were] kind of shaky because you don't know what's coming,” Chatman said. “But after you get into your groove, you realize you've been here before, you've done this plenty of times.”

Shutting down the Minnesota offense and leading rusher Darius Taylor in key moments on Saturday flipped the script on the questions surrounding the strength of the UNC defense. However, Chatman said he believes the team has yet to play its best football. 

“We have to get better overall,” he said. “We can’t let everybody catch the ball.”


@dthsports |

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