Defensive Spark

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 23 North Carolina’s defense turned a deficit into a blowout during an oppressive third quarter stand in Saturday’s 56-29 win over Liberty.

The Flames trailed 21-15 at halftime despite posting the more impressive offensive statistics. Turner Gill’s squad outgained UNC by a 240-214 margin, averaged 5.7 yards per play and controlled the clock by a 6:34 advantage.

The Flames had success both on the ground and through the air in a balanced attack, rushing 21 times for 88 yards and throwing 21 times for 152 yards.

“In the first half, it wasn’t necessarily miscommunications, but it was just effort plays,” cornerback Tim Scott told reporters following the game. “We weren’t running to the ball, we weren’t hustling during the play and it really hurt us.”

UNC’s defense reversed course after halftime and dragged the offense along with it.

Liberty churned out 53 yards on 16 plays – good for a 3.3 yards-per-play average in the third quarter. In seven possessions, UNC forced four 3-and-outs and three turnovers.

While UNC head coach Larry Fedora acknowledged that halftime adjustments were made schematically, he credited the turnaround to a change in attitude first and foremost.

“It was just the energy level of the guys,” Fedora said. “You get one guy that’s real positive and excited, it’s contagious and it goes to the next guy. And the next thing you know, good things start happening.”

Liberty took the lead at 22-21 when Nick Sigmon forced a Quinshad Davis fumble after a catch and Jacob Hagen ran it in for a 27-yard score. The Flames built on their momentum by forcing a 3-and-out on UNC’s ensuing offensive possession, but the Tar Heel defense matched that effort with its third consecutive 3-and-out.

Marquise Williams capitalized on a short field, driving UNC 40 yards in two plays for a touchdown on a 33-yard screen pass to Mack Hollins.

The points came in a hurry shortly thereafter.

On Liberty’s next offensive play, junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer intercepted Josh Woodrum’s pass over the middle and returned it down the left sideline for a 19-yard touchdown. On Liberty’s next play, defensive end Junior Gnonkonde forced a Todd Macon fumble that Kedrick Davis recovered.

With another short field available – this time from 36 yards out – UNC only needed six plays to increase its lead to 42-22.

Two plays into Liberty’s ensuing possession, safety Dominique Green recovered a fumble forced by cornerback Alex Dixon on the Flames’ 23-yard line.

Mitch Trubisky connected with Jack Tabb on a four-yard touchdown pass off play-action to notch his first career score and stretch UNC’s lead to 49-22.

UNC scored 28 points in a span of three minutes and 49 seconds in the third quarter, turning a one-point deficit into a 27-point lead.

“In years past, we’ve kind of relied on the offense to get us going,” Schoettmer said. “It was good that when the offense was struggling, the defense could pick up the offense. That just shows how our team has transformed and we’re a complete team now.”

UNC’s offensive players made similar comments during their postgame interviews. Redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Trubisky termed the offense’s reliance on the defense as “an excellent learning experience.”

“We need to feed off each as a team in all three aspects of the game – special teams, defense and offense – and when we were struggling a little bit, the defense had our backs and they picked us up,” Trubisky said. “So we were able to get stops and get the ball back and make some big plays.”

Liberty was held to 106 yards after halftime. The Flames converted 1-of-6 third-down conversions and picked up just three first downs.

UNC forced six turnovers in all, matching its most since its 31-13 win over Boston College on Nov. 21, 2009.

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