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The Daily Tar Heel

Old defensive woes resurface in UNC football's sputtering end to regular season

mayo bowl halftime-1.jpg
The UNC football team runs out onto the field during the Mayo Classic football game against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.

All roads lead to Charlotte.

The UNC football team started its season in the Queen City — walking away with a 31-17 win over South Carolina in the Duke's Mayo Classic — and hoped to return to Bank of America Stadium in early December for another shot at an ACC Championship.

And while the prospect of a repeat conference title appearance drained away during the rocky second half of the season, the Tar Heels will still be traveling to Charlotte — just a few weeks later. After a 6-0 start, UNC (8-4) will end its volatile season against West Virginia (8-4) in the Duke's Mayo Bowl on Dec. 27.

After sacking South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler nine times to kick off the year in a statement win, North Carolina's defense appeared poised to dominate after years of being the program's Achilles heel, a juxtaposition to the Tar Heels' traditionally high-powered offense.

"We can definitely build off this," UNC senior linebacker Cedric Gray said following the season opener. "We're not going backwards."

For the next few weeks, UNC football surged forward. After squeaking out a win against Appalachian State at home in double overtime, the Tar Heels continued to triumph against Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. At 5-0, all eyes were on the ACC heavyweight bout between then-No. 12 UNC and then-No. 25 Miami on Oct. 14.

Instead of panicking, North Carolina, led by junior receiver Tez Walker's three-touchdown supernova performance, earned a decisive 41-31 win, putting up 21 unanswered points in the third quarter.

“This is a game that sometimes in our past people would’ve thought we would’ve lost,” head coach Mack Brown said after the win. “Because people were bragging on us and because we were walking around and Miami came in to upset us.”

The Tar Heels became one of only a handful of undefeated teams in the country. They were 6-0 for the first time in 26 years, and were 23.5-point favorites against a 1-5 Virginia team. What could go wrong?

The Cavaliers came into Kenan Stadium over UNC's fall break and delivered a 31-27 upset, penning a new chapter in the South's Oldest Rivalry. At the time, Virginia was ranked last in the ACC's scoring offense and defense.

“Virginia had a plan,” Kaimon Rucker, UNC senior jack, said postgame. “They stuck to the split outside zone plays and they were very successful off of them. Virginia came to play and we didn’t.” 

From there, déjà vu quickly became a jarring reality as UNC's season continued to spiral. The Tar Heels gave up a combined 52 second half points in losses to Georgia Tech, Clemson and N.C. State. 

However, unlike the downward tailspin of last year with four consecutive losses to end the season, the Tar Heels found bright spots in their thrashing of Campbell and a double-overtime victory over rival Duke.

“I don’t think there is a common thread,” Brown told the media after the Tar Heels' 39-20 loss to N.C. State. “We keep looking for ways to win more than eight games and we had a chance to win nine again.”

Common thread or not, 2023 saw North Carolina start another season with high hopes and end once again in mediocrity, taking the less optimal road to Charlotte. Two years ago, UNC was tabbed as the preseason No. 10 team in the country, only to end at 6-7 with — as fate would have it — a loss to South Carolina in Charlotte at the Duke's Mayo Bowl.

“We also haven't responded very well after positives,” Brown said after UNC’s win over Minnesota. “We haven't handled success very well.”

The Tar Heels will seek to break this pattern in their Dec. 27 match-up.

@gracegnugent

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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