The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Monday, Feb. 26, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

After defensive meltdown in Atlanta, UNC defense regains rhythm against Campbell

20231104_Acharya_CampbellFBFinal-9.jpg
UNC senior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) and junior linebacker Power Echols (23) defend against the Campbell offensive linemen during the football game against Campbell on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kenan Stadium. UNC beat Campbell 59-7.

When Campbell scored on a wheel route to tie the game at seven apiece late in the first quarter, it looked like the same old, same old for the UNC defense.

But after that, in the words of head coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels "took a team they were better than and dominated them.”

In a 59-7 drubbing of the Fighting Camels, the Tar Heel defense reset after a dreadful performance a week prior against Georgia Tech. On Saturday, UNC allowed just one touchdown, collected five sacks and forced four turnovers.

“I think that we did everything that we were supposed to do today playing against Campbell, a little bit lesser opponent," senior linebacker Cedric Gray said. "And we handled business like we should have."

After the UNC defense hit rock bottom last Saturday against the Yellow Jackets, there was only one way to go: up.

Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik sat down with the team on Sunday and gave the Tar Heels a motivational speech. He told the team they'd get back on track and that their goals were still in front of them. As he spoke to the team, he was joined by every assistant defensive coach, something Gray said Chizik had never done after a loss before. 

Despite playing Campbell, the biggest takeaways for UNC’s defense on Saturday were handling tempo, stopping the run and forcing turnovers.

According to Gray, Chizik crafted a plan with the defense before the game for whenever Campbell would run tempo, something the Tar Heels struggled with against Georgia Tech. He laid out three or four plays that the team would run in that scenario, allowing them to get to the line quicker.

The run defense was Brown’s biggest concern, though. After the Yellow Jackets rushed for 348 yards last week, Brown was blunt with Chizik: they needed to stop the run, no matter what.

“I told coach Chizik, ‘If you have to put all 11 at the line of scrimmage and they throw it over our head for a touchdown, I'm okay with that,’” Brown said.

Despite allowing just four rushing yards in the second half, UNC's defense didn't quite reach perfection — on multiple occasions, the Tar Heels couldn't make tackles in the open field. Campbell quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams was the team’s leading rusher, gashing UNC twice with runs of 30 or more yards.

Still, Gray said the defense “did a pretty good job” of stopping the run. This, coupled with forcing turnovers, put the ball back in the hands of star quarterback Drake Maye.

On two different occasions Saturday, a defensive turnover led to a UNC touchdown. On their own 35-yard line, the Camels ran a fake punt in the third quarter. The punter stepped back to pass, scanned the field and Gray said his eyes got big.

“I was just like, ‘Why is he not punting the ball?’” he said. 

Gray forced a fumble that put UNC in the red zone, which Drake Maye capitalized on with a 21-yard touchdown pass to junior wideout J.J. Jones.

“They just get the offense back on the field so we can go do our job,” junior tight end Bryson Nesbit said. “So [that's] definitely a great help.”

As the Tar Heels enter their final stretch of the season — which includes two rivalry games with Duke and N.C. State along with a trip to Death Valley to face Clemson — it's safe to say the defense is the ceiling for how far North Carolina can bounce back from two inexplicable meltdowns.

In the words of Brown, “The offense is the offense. They're pretty much the same every week."

@brendan_lunga18

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.