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November 17, 2013
Defensive pressure aids UNC effort
Ryan Switzer ran for 61 yards on a fourth-quarter punt return to give North Carolina a touchdown that secured a 34-27 win against Pittsburgh. The play was the second of its kind on the day, but it was the one the Tar Heels needed, however, to capture the win in a way they couldn't earlier.
The Panthers scored four times late in the game - once in the third quarter and three times in the fourth - by capitalizing on UNC's inability to make stops to hold an all-game lead for the win.
But Switzer's return touchdown and the defense's resiliency in stopping Pittsburgh on its second to last possession of the game gave UNC its fifth win.
"We had a lot of opportunities to put that game away, we just didn't take advantage of it," coach Larry Fedora said. "But I will say that our team kept clawing at it, kept scratching and fighting at it and finding a way to win."
Pittsburgh scored first with a 28-yard field goal less than five minutes into the game, but an aggressive defense - which sacked Pitt quarter back Tom Savage seven times - did not allow the home team another point in the first half.
Terry Shankle - who had eight tackles, three for loss and two sacks - said that he saw the opportunity for sacks on the second drive he was on the field, during Pittsburgh's third possession, and knocked Savage back 12 yards.
Actually recording a sack was something former-corner Shankle was excited for, especially after recalling how he missed an opportunity to get at the quarterback last week against Virginia.
"It's just getting used to the position," he said. "When you play ram, it's totally different, you've got to change your mindset. You've got to go from covering to more in the run field, blitzing, doing pass moves and stuff like that."
Kareem Martin agrees with Shankle that all of the players on the defense are more comfortable in their positions.
The defensive success the unit had today is the evidence of that comfort, especially since the playbook was not particularly different against Pittsburgh and the number of blitzes being called hasn't changed, according to Martin.
"It was just a total defensive effort," he said. "Guys on the back end were covering really well. You've got to give them a lot of credit because they have a great receiving core here at Pitt and (the secondary was) giving us enough time to get to the quarterback. It was (also) just a relentless effort by us guys upfront, just about everybody on the line got a sack today, so I think it just credits the whole defense."
"Guys are just playing a lot looser. Guys are familiar with everything, the game plan is scaled down and guys are just more comfortable in their position now. It's not 'If I do this, he may take me out,' or something like that, guys are just more confident."
The defense's confidence was something that Fedora said his players on both sides of the ball felt and reciprocated back and forth in a way that magnified one big play into many big plays.
"It's a confidence thing," Fedora said. "When you start making those game changing plays, it starts to snow ball. Guys, they start fighting to make those plays. 'Who's going to be the next guy?' They start talking about it, 'Who's going to do it? Who's going to be the one? Who's going to knock the ball out? Who's going to take it the distance?'"
"This is a team that's totally bought into special teams being a big part of what we do so we've got guys who are having fun out there on special teams."
Martin said the defense clicked in a way unlike in any other game this season because the players on that unit are out on the field enjoying themselves in their confidence, just as the special teams unit is.
"Things were just working today like they've never worked before," he said. "It was just a regular game plan but we were able to explode their offensive line."
"We were just having fun out there, it was race to the quarterback. We found their weaknesses and every we went to the sideline, guys were calling 'I'm next, I'm next to get a sack,' and everybody was able to eat today."
Martin matched Shankle's eight tackles (each of the pair had six solo) and did just better with 3.5 sacks, all for loss, in leading the defense.
Tre Boston was the third Tar Heel to make eight tackles, with one for loss and four other members of North Carolina's defense recorded five tackles.
UNC's seven sacks were made by Martin (3.5), Shankle (2), Norkeithus Otis (1.5) and Darius Lipford (0.5).
"We weren't playing like robots, we usually just line blitz our blitz(es) one way," Shankle said. "I finally gave a move, (my blocker) bit for it, and helped me get my first sack."
"They were sliding the line to Kareem and trying to contain him which freed me one on one with a full back or with a tight end kicking out too much, it would help me get to the quarterback."
For Fedora, the early pressure from his defense showed ability to capitalize on a not-quite-stabilized Pittsburgh offense, but it was the late-game stops that solidified the progress over the course of the season.
"Especially early, we were putting an extreme amount of pressure on Savage and once they settled in, they started running the ball a little more effectively and it made it tougher for us to get to the quarterback," he said. "But that fourth and one (at the end of the fourth quarter)? There it is, they make the play, they're finding a way to get it done."
Martin said the defense knew it had to "bow up," and that the unit said before the three-and-out that preceded Switzer's touchdown, that Pittsburgh's drive there had to be a three-and-out, that simply "they don't score, they don't win."
For Fedora though, who said he was "riding," Martin all game before learning after the clock ran out that the senior had 3.5 sacks, the hunger from the defense was the response he likes to see from his players.
"I'm riding most of them the whole game anyway," Fedora said. "I want a sack every play out of them. It's just who I am, I'm always on them and then I look up at the end and we've done something good and these guys understand me, they know how to handle me."
Stopping Pittsburgh on late-game drives and making game-changing plays are also things Fedora has harped on all season as part of what is likely the most-emphasized part of Fedora's coaching - and that is ultimately exactly how UNC won.
"We knew we couldn't let this one slip away, we played too good at the beginning of the game," Shankle said. "We always harp on starting what we finish, so we had to finish it. We (couldn't) put everything on the offense, we had to make a big play to win, and that's what we did."