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Slippery slopes: UNC's season ends in disappointment yet again with loss to N.C. State

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UNC senior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) and graduate defensive back Antavious 'Stick' Lane (1) tackle N.C. State graduate quarterback Brennan Armstrong (5) during the football game at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. UNC lost 39-20.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Cedric Gray saluted his family while walking off the field at Carter-Finley Stadium.

In what might have been the senior linebacker's final game of his collegiate career, Gray’s unit was once again unable to prove what he had preached during the offseason: that the defense would look more comfortable and confident as they began to fully understand defensive coordinator Gene Chizick’s scheme.

But in UNC’s 39-20 loss on Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium, the defense couldn’t get its footing. The Wolfpack scored on their first eight possessions of the game — four touchdowns and four field goals — and UNC’s season slipped away in a similar fashion to last year.

In the first half alone, North Carolina gave up 327 yards of total offense and 232 passing yards. Armstrong was able to find receivers — mainly Kevin “KC” Concepcion — to slash open the Tar Heel secondary. 

UNC head coach Mack Brown said after the game that UNC simply "didn't tackle well."

"Brennan Armstrong did a tremendous job," Mack said. "We didn’t put pressure on him and he hit everybody. They were all open and he made some great throws, so gotta give him a lot of credit.”

Despite starting the season 6-0 with what looked to be a renewed defense and understanding of the scheme, the Tar Heels have since given up just over 450 yards per game, and it was no different against the Wolfpack. North Carolina gave up 504 yards in total, with 334 yards being in the air. 

After the game, Brown and Gray had no answers. No answers for what happened on defense. No answers to how eerily similar this season ended to last.

Gray said he didn't "know where this came from."

"I thought this is something we talked about all off-season, throughout the year — never get complacent when we’re high," Gray said. "And then, after week six, things started kind of trending down hill for us.” 

N.C. State entered Saturday with one of the worst scoring offenses in the ACC and ranked 76th in the nation in that same category. However, UNC had no answer for Concepcion, who tallied seven receptions for 131 yards and two touchdowns, while also adding 55 rushing yards.

The Wolfpack targeted Concepcion out of the wildcat formation, letting him find the open holes in the North Carolina defense. 

Despite his success, Gray said they weren't caught off guard by Concepcion.

“Coming into this game, we knew he was a great player," Gray said. "We knew he was fast, quick, we knew that they were gonna try to find creative ways to get him the ball. Unfortunately we just, you know, wasn’t able to slow him down tonight.”

Along with Concepcion’s vision and speed, the Tar Heels hurt themselves with multiple missed tackles, many due to the slick surface. North Carolina had a multitude of miscues — on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball — as a result of players slipping.

“The grass looked great,” sophomore quarterback Drake Maye said. “A lot better than Clemson’s, but, yeah, just slipping issues. I think one of the first times I took off I almost slipped and fell.” 

With UNC’s goals slipping away from them throughout the season, they will look to earn the program's second nine-win season in a row since Brown’s first stint with the Tar Heels.

However, despite that opportunity, both Maye and Gray share the same sentiment surrounding the end to this season: embarrassment

“I definitely feel a little embarrassed,” Gray said. “These are two games that, you know, coming into them we thought we could win, you know, find a way to win. Obviously that didn’t happen. Definitely very frustrating, but just gotta take it in.”

@mdmaynard74

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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