Despite starting linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Travis Hughes being limited due to injury, associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning went on the attack early. Cincinnati’s opening three possessions yielded just eight yards in 13 plays.
By the time the Bearcats’ fourth drive started, they trailed 16-0.
Cincinnati entered halftime trailing by 20 with three points on the scoreboard and 134 yards on the stat sheet. Koenning utilized a variety of blitzes and looks to frustrate Bearcat quarterback Brendon Kay (15-of-35 passing, 181 yards, INT). On a 3rd-and-10 in the second quarter, UNC’s three down linemen all stood up along with Ryan Mangum, who was one of three Rams on the field.
UNC held Cincinnati to a season-low 349 yards of offense. The Bearcats were held below 200 passing yards (181) for only the second time this season despite averaging 313.8 passing yards per game (15th nationally) coming in.
“I thought the defensive staff did a tremendous job scheming their protections,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the game. “We showed some different things up front with some twisting and some stunts and we brought some extra guys. We were playing a defense that we had never really played because we didn’t have any linebackers and I thought those safeties did a really nice job.”
Safety Darien Rankin played a qausi-linebacker role earlier this year in UNC’s speed package, but his season-ending injury last month shifted the burden to senior free safety Tre Boston (team-high 9 tackles), who started practicing at linebacker once exams wrapped up.
“You’ve got to give Tre Boston a lot of credit,” senior defensive end Kareem Martin said. “He switched positions a couple of weeks ago to help the defense out and he did it without saying a word. He really put in the time and effort to learn everything that we wanted him to do. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he was down in the box all game. I’m just proud of him for doing that for me and the team.”
Junior cornerback Tim Scott (6 tkl, sack) also played at free safety for most of the game to allow freshman Brian Walker to play corner. The Tar Heels played with at least six defensive backs on nearly every snap, while eight defensive backs were on the field for UNC’s first-quarter safety sack by Martin (4 tkl, 0.5 sacks) and Brandon Ellerbe (5 tkl, 1.5 sacks).
“Coach was able to blitz a little bit more,” Boston said. “He even blitzed me a few times. Coach wanted to have this bowl game to show that we’re just going to go after them. We practiced the same stuff every day of these three weeks and I think Coach was just confident in us, how we were [playing] in practice, and he just unleashed us.”
Cincinnati had only given up 12 sacks through its first 12 games – good for T-11th nationally – but recent injuries up front shook up the rotation. Starting guards Austen Bujnoch and Sam Longo were sidelined, forcing starting right tackle Parker Ehinger to slide inside to right guard.
UNC capitalized on those deficiencies with five sacks, which trails only the seven sacks against Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 for most on the season. Four of those sacks came on third down.
After totaling 10 sacks through the first six games, the Tar Heels closed the schedule with 22 sacks over their final seven contests.
After Cincinnati scored a pair of touchdowns to pull within 36-17, T.J. Thorpe fumbled a kickoff and the Bearcats recovered at the six-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Tar Heel defense delivered a trio of hard hits to force 4th-and-goal and survived an errant pass to escape the scenario without giving up any points.
Given a limited roster to start the season, as well as a number of players – Bandits Darius Lipford and Shakeel Rashad, linebacker Tommy Heffernan and defensive back Donnie Miles, to name a few – missing Saturday’s bowl game, Koenning’s defense saved arguably its best performance for the postseason.