CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When defensive coordinator Gene Chizik arrived at North Carolina, he made it clear to his defense that he expected at least one turnover per 35 snaps.
In Saturday’s 53-14 drubbing of North Carolina A&T, the Tar Heel defense gave Chizik three turnovers in the span of 12 plays.
“Going into halftime, we had three (takeaways), and Coach Chizik still wanted more takeaways,” said linebacker Cayson Collins after the game. “He said he wanted at least two more.”
North Carolina forced its first turnover of the season near the end of the 1st quarter when linebacker Shakeel Rashad forced a fumble out of the hands of Aggies wide receiver Justin Smith and Sam Smiley returned it 52 yards.
“It was a great play by (Smiley) to scoop it up,” Rashad said after the game. “People don’t realize footballs aren’t circles, so when they’re rolling it’s just kind of a guessing game where it’s gonna go. You’ve got to bend in the right places and scoop it up.”
Rashad struck again on the very next drive, intercepting a 4th-and-10 pass from Kwashaun Quick.
“I was in coverage on the guy, and I had some help with me, and I just looked up and the ball was coming,” said Rashad. “I said ‘Shak, don’t drop it.’
The very next play, North Carolina took the ball from N.C. A&T yet again when M.J. Stewart intercepted a pass by Quick and returned it to the Aggies 21 yard-line.
The Tar Heels almost recorded a fourth takeaway when a pass went right through Rashad’s hands, which would have given the linebacker his second interception of the night and his third of his career.
“I did drop that one,” Rashad said about the miscue. “I forgot to remind myself not to drop that one, and I did drop it.”
The Tar Heel defense put together a solid performance in its second game, allowing 273 and 14 points. The most impressive feat may be limiting N.C. A&T star running back Tarik Cohen to just 69 yards. The defense consistently beat Cohen to the edge when he tried to use his speed to get to the outside.
And, according to Rashad, Cohen’s speed was something to behold.
“Fastest human being I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Rashad after seeing Cohen chase down Smiley after the fumble recovery. “That guy can move.”
Obviously, it should be expected that North Carolina would overpower an FCS school, but the performance by the defense affirmed that its formidable debut against South Carolina was no fluke.
The defense will get its second Power-5 test of the season when it hosts Illinois (2-0) at Kenan Stadium next Saturday.