MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – It was a play that North Carolina fans had seen so many times before. The type of play that either flipped momentum or erased hope of a significant victory. Miami’s offensive line opened a hole on 3rd-and-2 and Joe Yearby exploded through it, shaking a Tar Heel linebacker and racing into the open field with only green grass and a touchdown in front of him.
It had all of the makings of a game-changing scoring play until true freshman Myles Dorn made up lost ground and tackled Yearby six yards short of the end zone. While the catastrophic play, as Gene Chizik prefers to call them, netted 42 yards, Dorn’s effort gave his defense life.
That’s ultimately all Chizik asks of his defense: make the offense take another snap. The more snaps, the more potential for a mistake, the more opportunity for a turnover. The Tar Heels stoned the Hurricanes on the next three snaps, thereby forcing a chip shot field goal to maintain a seven-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
“All [Chizik] says is If a guy breaks it, just try to run him down as hard as you can because you’ve got to give our defense a chance to fight,” defensive tackle Nazair Jones said after UNC’s 20-13 win. “And in that case, we only gave up three instead of seven, so that was the perfect example. I’m pretty sure that will be a in a cutup somewhere next week for us to see.”
Dorn’s hustle play won’t be the only one drawing praise from UNC’s coaching staff during Sunday’s film study. Time and time again, the Tar Heels kept Miami’s gains at a minimum. The Hurricanes took 68 offensive snaps and managed to turn just seven into explosive plays. UNC held Miami to 5.3 yards per play and 3.9 yards per rush.
“The defense played their most complete game of the season to this point,” Larry Fedora said. “Each week we’ve been saying that they are a unit that’s been getting a little bit better and a little bit better and they are making more plays and these guys have confidence. They’re playing well together. We had a few breakdowns on a couple routes with the tight end back in the middle and had that one run, but other than that they played really well.”
UNC’s defense had played well for significant stretches of time in recent weeks. It locked down Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter after giving up 37 points through three quarters. It held Florida State to 14 points through three quarters before giving out in the final stanza and having to rely on Mitch Trubisky and Nick Weiler to pull out the victory.
It was the latter collapse that served as a talking point in the locker room after UNC built a 20-3 halftime lead at Hard Rock Stadium.
“That was my message at halftime, not having that Florida State thing come back for this game,” Jones said. “At Florida State, we got off of them and we gave them a chance to get back into the game. And our message at halftime was to not let that happen again.”
The Tar Heels embraced that speech and forced a pair of three-and-outs to open the second half by making ordinary plays. That’s all Chizik asks. Know your assignment. Stay in your gap. Wrap up. Live to play another down.
Wide receiver Ryan Switzer has seen the defense’s progression during practice in recent weeks. He’s heard the coaching staff’s unrelenting demands of high effort and attention to detail.
“They’re always coaching,” Switzer said. “Nothing’s ever good enough for them. They’re pushing those guys beyond their limits. They’re having an impact and those guys are truly believing that they can be a great defense.”
Great defenses require playmakers. If Dorn’s touchdown-saving tackle slowed Miami’s momentum, Malik Carney’s sack-fumble ended the Hurricanes’ hopes for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. On 1st-and-10 from Miam’s 31, Carney stayed low off the snap and exploded by the left tackle to drop Kaaya and dislodge the ball, and his high school teammate Jeremiah Clarke was there for the recovery.
Two weeks after failing to get a late stop in this same state against a Top-20 opponent, UNC’s defense finally delivered.
“There was going to come a time where they were going to be on the field in the last two minutes and they were going to have to get it done,” Fedora said. “And all that preparation that they’ve done throughout fall camp and each week on Wednesday when we go two-minute. They won the two-minute this past week in practice. And I talked about it. I said, ‘Your time’s coming. I don’t know when, but it’s coming.’”
It came on Saturday in a game that UNC needed to stay alive in the ACC Coastal Division race.