Larry Fedora saw plenty of potential from his defense against South Carolina outside of four big plays. Those comments resembled optimistic coach speak in the opening minutes of UNC’s home opener before turning into actual honest observations as the game progressed.
Logan Kilgore (21-of-35, 211 yards, 3 INT) and his Blue Raider offense looked lethal during its initial 14-play, 68-yard drive. Middle Tennessee converted its first three third downs, including a 19-yard strike to Kyle Griswold on 3rd-and-6 that was originally ruled a touchdown. An official review overturned the call, however, giving the Blue Raiders a 1st-and-goal inside the 1-yard line.
The conversation on the UNC sideline during the official review, according to Boston, was about fighting back.
“That’s all we know how to do – fight and not give up points,” Boston said following UNC’s 40-20 victory. “We don’t let nothing come easy… We’re not just going to let them come into the Tar Pit and score on us that easily.”
With the ball set only inches away from an early 7-0 lead, MTSU running back Jordan Parker was dropped for a 1-yard loss on first down. A false start on second down pushed Middle Tennessee back and resulted in an incomplete pass. On 3rd-and-goal from the six, Kilgore floated a pass into the back of the end zone, but Boston elevated and pulled the ball down with one hand.
That momentum shift ignited the Tar Heel defense. The Blue Raiders’ final five drives of the first half yielded 31 yards on 17 plays.
“I felt like it almost broke their will,” Bandit Darius Lipford said. “They came out hot and hitting, they were making plays and we weren’t really stopping them the way we should have. For us to shut them down after they overturned the touchdowns, I felt like that really took a lot of momentum from them and put it in our hands.”
Middle Tennessee found its rhythm to open the second half, driving 68 yards in nine plays to score on Parker’s 22-yard run up the middle, cutting UNC’s lead to 23-7. After forcing a three-and-out, the Blue Raiders appeared to be in business once again after marching 51 yards to set up a 3rd-and-5 from UNC’s 26-yard line. Kilgore forced a pass into double coverage when UNC blitzed and strong safety Darien Rankin stepped in for his fourth career interception at the 12-yard line.
The Tar Heel offense scored on the ensuing possession to push its lead back to three scores at 26-7.
North Carolina won the turnover battle, 4-2. After Middle Tennessee State converted its first three third downs, UNC held the Blue Raiders to 2-of-9 on third-down conversions through the third quarter.
The Blue Raiders churned out 159 yards and 13 points in the fourth quarter as UNC worked in the second unit, but were unable to pull any closer than 13 points.
“I think our guys did a nice job of hitting,” Fedora told reporters during his postgame press conference. “I thought they did a nice job of wrapping up. I think they did a much better job of tackling today. I think the emphasis that the coaches put on them in practice, the kids bought into it and they created some takeaways. Some of those were in the air and that was a great thing.”
Middle Tennessee State finished with 401 total yards. Parker ran 22 times for 109 yards and a touchdown, while Kilgore managed just 5.9 yards per passing attempt.
Linebacker Travis Hughes led UNC with nine tackles and Norkeithus Otis added five tackles, two sacks and a quarterback hurry.