"We've been down before, but we're playing together as a team now and we're going to pull ourselves up," linebacker Larry Edwards said. "We just play hard-nosed football and play like we do in practice. We're not going to let anything stop us from making plays."
Not only are the Tar Heels (1-2 overall, 1-1 ACC) on a defensive roll right now, they're also young and deep from front to back. Provided John Bunting and his defensive coaching staff can stay together, and there's no reason to believe they can't at this point, then the talent evaluation process that has led to the team's present success might just remain constant.
"Our defensive front is as good as it has been since 2001," Bunting said.
While Carolina can only afford to look ahead to the next game on the schedule – or Utah, here's a quick peak at just some of the personnel that will be around next season beyond.
Tommy Davis and Chase Page will be missed, but Kentwan Balmer (So.), Shelton Bynum (Jr.), Kyndraus Guy (So.), Khalif Mitchell (So.), Brian Rackley (Jr.) and Hilee Taylor (So.) will still be around.
If there is a place in need of a little more restocking it's at linebacker. However, UNC is still in its best shape it's been at the position in a long time. Tommy Richardson will be gone, along with Jeff Longhany and Doug Justice (provided he is not granted a sixth-year of eligibility). Still, Edwards (Jr.), Victor Worsley (Jr.), Durell Mapp (So.) Chase Rice (Fr-R.) and Garrett White (Fr.), among others will remain.
And the backfield graduations of Mahlon Carey and Cedrick Holt will be eased by the return of Jacoby Watkins (Jr.), Trimane Goddard (So.), Quinton Person (So.), Kareen Taylor (Jr.) and D.J. Walker (Jr.).
"Some of the members of our defense have really stepped in and taken a role as we develop, and they're leading us to become the great team that we want to," Edwards said.
But back in the here and now, the UNC defense is coming off a six-sack performance against the Wolfpack. And perhaps even more impressive were its 12 TFLs for 54 yards. Seemingly stuck in reverse for most of the day, Jay Davis' rushing yards totaled minus-73. The Carolina secondary recorded six pass breakups.
The Pack's five-tailback depth chart – led by Toney Baker and Darrell Blackman – and Davis were held to just 13 net yards on the ground.
"The sacks hurt us," N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said. "But we couldn't run the football today. We have to be able to run the football and we couldn't."
It's still not a perfect product, far from it. But it finally appears the UNC defense has found its identity, and that could keep the Tar Heels at least close in games throughout the remainder of their tough schedule.
"We're just running around and making plays and that's what defense comes down to," Richardson said. "You can study the Xs and Os all you want to, but if you can't make plays, you can't really win the game.
"It's very motivating, but we still know we can play better. We're still missing some tackles. We had a couple of sacks, but there were a couple more that we should have had."