Pivotal picks ensure convincing UNC rout
North Carolina’s defense took a significant step Saturday afternoon in a 40-20 football cruise past Middle Tennessee.
The scoreboard didn’t show it. But inside the numbers, the Tar Heels showed an ability to take advantage of a situation and the crucial character trait of resiliency.
Both times, they were defending the red zone and changing momentum.
“We can be a much better team,” said senior free safety Tre Boston. “That wasn’t even close to our best.”
Not for four quarters. But the stops on two drives, one each in the first and third quarters, aroused the announced crowd of 48,000 in Kenan Stadium.
Boston stopped the game’s opening drive in the end zone, three snaps after a replay review took a touchdown off the scoreboard. The Conference USA guests had moved from their 35 in 14 plays. On third down from the 7, Boston leaped high to pull down Logan Kilgore’s misfire.
“I was thinking the ball was going into the student section, and he brought the ball down,” said junior linebacker Darius Lipford. “It almost broke their will.”
A score could have started a major upset bid. And that bid could still have been fueled by a third-quarter drive pulling the Raiders within 10.
Instead, Rankin snagged a Kilgore pass at the 12-yard-line protecting a 23-7 lead.
“That was a great call by the coaches,” Boston said. “To make that interception — if not, we’re going to have to learn to score more, or score with it.”
Second-year head coach Larry Fedora said the Tar Heels (1-1), with a week off before opening ACC play at Georgia Tech, did a good job hitting, wrapping up and tackling. He called the Boston interception “huge” and credited the unit for creating four takeaways.
“Our defense, especially in the first half, played really, really well,” Fedora said.
Middle Tennessee gained 78 of its 99 first-half yards on the opening drive. When mop-up duty was done, they finished with 401 yards.
The Raiders (1-1) were challenged up front by Kareem Martin, Ethan Farmer, Tim Jackson, Norkeithus Otis, Travis Hughes, Brandon Ellerbe, Jeff Schoettmer, Nathan Straub and Lipford. Most of Middle Tennessee’s yards and points came after UNC led 26-7 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
On offense, Romar Morris ran for two scores (26, 1 yards), Bryn Renner ran for a score (1 yard) and threw one to Quinshad Davis (18 yards). Marquise Williams threw a 15-yard score to Bug Howard at the end.
Renner finished 23 of 34 for 339 yards.
The Tar Heels were inconsistent running, with Russell Bodine in the middle, James Hurst and Caleb Peterson on the left side, and Landon Turner and Jon Heck on the right. Fedora acknowledged the group’s youth, a factor that makes adjustments difficult when communication during plays isn’t possible.
“We need to take more reps together,” Renner said. “We ran well against South Carolina and we obviously struggled here today. But these guys protect me well and we’ll get better.”
So will the defense. And Saturday was a character step in the right direction.
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