UNC’s defense didn’t receive much help in the first quarter at Carter-Finley Stadium. N.C. State started its first drive at UNC’s 24 to set up its opening touchdown drive 40 seconds into the 103rd edition of rivalry.
The Wolfpack’s average field position on its opening five drives was its 46-yard line. After the initial touchdown, however, UNC’s defense forced three field goals and sniffed out a fake punt on those possessions.
The Tar Heels retook the lead at 21-16 on their next possession and the defense stiffened further, forcing three consecutive three-and-outs to close out the first half.
North Carolina never trailed after halftime, holding the Wolfpack to three points on its final 11 possessions.
"I thought our defense did an outstanding job making them kick field goals throughout the day and kept us in this game all the way through," Fedora told reporters during his postgame press conference.
The Wolfpack entered Saturday’s contest ranked 122nd nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (40.9) and scored just one touchdown in three trips against the Tar Heels.
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin (8 tkl, 3 TFL, sack) indicated that attitude was critical in limiting N.C. State’s drives into UNC territory.
“Just bowing up,” Martin said. “Getting down in the red zone and just having that mentality that just because they’re in the red zone, they’re not getting in the end zone. They’re going to have to kick field goals or turn the ball over.”
Brandon Mitchell (10-of-22 passing, 130 yards, 2 INT; 105 rushing yards, TD) marched the Wolfpack into UNC territory on its opening two possessions of the third quarter, but was limited to just three points. UNC forced a punt after a Jabari Price pass breakup on 3rd-and-10 at the 40. The Tar Heels absorbed a questionable personal foul call on Price on the next possession by dropping Mitchell for a 2-yard loss on 3rd-and-1 at the 9-yard line.
N.C. State settled for a 28-yard field goal, its fourth of the game from inside UNC’s 40-yard line. The Wolfpack’s next three possessions resulted in a pair of interceptions – courtesy of Tim Scott and Brian Walker - sandwiched around a three-and-out.
Despite UNC’s offense not being able to capitalize on either turnover, as well as Thomas Moore missing a PAT that would have given his team a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, the defense maintained its bend-but-don’t-break productiveness as the game clock ticked away.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the defense,” UNC quarterback Bryn Renner said. “They played a heck of a ball game.”
The sideline discussion late in the game, according to Martin, revolved around this rivalry contest’s similarity to NFL games, in terms of the defenses determining the outcome late.
And after failing to keep Miami out of the end zone on its game-winning drive 16 days ago, UNC buckled down and held N.C. State scoreless in the fourth quarter. Free safety Tre Boston broke up a fourth down pass with 2:42 to give the Tar Heels the ball back near midfield.
After holding Boston College to a season-low 4.35 yards-per-play last week, UNC limited N.C. State to 5.0 yards-per-play – good for second-best this season – on Saturday. The Wolfpack averaged 4.56 yards-per-play over the final three quarters.
For the third time in four games, UNC held its opponent below 400 yards.
“We haven’t given up the big play,” Fedora said when asked about his defense’s recent improvement. “The big touchdown plays, the long ones that early in the season we gave up too many of those and it hurt us. We were playing solid all the way through other than a few big plays. I think we’ve gotten better at stopping those explosive plays.”
Despite the loss to Miami, North Carolina has now put together a string of three consecutive defensive performances trending in the right direction.
“To be able to hold a team to so many field goals when they had good field position at times and bending but not breaking, it gives us tremendous confidence going forward,” Martin said.