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December 28, 2013

Tar Heels steamroll Bearcats

CHARLOTTE--- North Carolina came out with a purpose in Saturday's Belk Bowl showdown with Cincinnati, building a 23-3 halftime advantage on its way to a 39-17 triumph at Bank of America Stadium.

The win ensured Carolina's fourth straight winning season dating back to 2010, and sixth winning season in a row not counting the vacated losses of 2008 and 2009.

It was also UNC's second victory in its last three bowl appearances, and its first triumph in a Charlotte bowl game after losses in three previous tries.

"What a way to cap off a tremendous week. This is a first-class bowl. A great week. I'm really proud of the way these guys played tonight," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora shortly after the game. "We didn't play perfect, but we played well enough to win a football game."

The Tar Heels caught a huge break early in the game, recovering a botched Cincinnati punt return after UNC's opening offensive possession, but Thomas Moore missed a 40-yard field goal.

Undaunted, UNC got the ball back minutes later and went on an 11 play, 68-yard march over three and a half minutes, culminated by a Romar Morris 2-yard touchdown run that gave Carolina the game's first points a little over nine minutes in.

Later in the first quarter the Tar Heels got after Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay and UNC defenders Kareem Martin and Brandon Ellerbe tackled him in the end zone for a safety, making the score 9-0 in favor of the Tar Heels.

"It (the safety) tied in with all the pressure our guys were giving. They were just all over him (Kay). You were watching from the sideline and it was a different guy every time giving pressure. The defensive staff did a great job with what they put together in that first half," said Fedora.

It appeared UNC was getting a huge advantage already getting the ball back with a nine-point lead but things were about to get even better, as freshman T.J. Logan returned the ensuing free kick 78 yards for a touchdown to make the count 16-0. That score held through the end of the first quarter.

Cincinnati finally got on the scoreboard in the second quarter with a 34-yard field goal from Tony Miliano, but the Tar Heels went back to work and pushed 76 yards in 12 plays, climaxed by a three-yard pass from Marquise Williams to Jack Tabb to make the score 23-3, which it would stay until halftime and well into the third quarter.

"We really played well in the first half---I thought we dominated the first half---and we had game-changing plays on special teams that we expect," said Fedora. "I can tell you this---we got 10 or 11 practices in, and our guys did a great job of preparing the way they did this whole season. It boils down to great preparation."

"We were dominant in that first half defensively. We were all over the quarterback. Those guys did a tremendous job," Fedora continued.

Fedora talked on Friday about the need for UNC to get 'game-changing plays on special teams,' and after Logan's touchdown the Tar Heels got another big special teams play out of Ryan Switzer, whose 86-yard punt return for a score, his fifth of the season, made the score 29-3.

"Those other 10 guys (on the punt return squad) believe every time he touches the ball, he (Switzer) can go the distance," said Fedora.

The fifth punt return touchdown by Switzer tied the NCAA record for punt return touchdowns in a season, set in 2004 by Hawaii's Chris Owens.

Switzer earned Belk Bowl MVP honors for his efforts, which included one rush for eight yards and three catches for 22 yards along with his long punt return touchdown.

"It's pretty good. I'm happy I was able to do it," said Switzer about the record-tying punt return. "Thankfully Coach Fedora and the staff trusted me enough to put me back there, and without those (other) ten guys (on the punt return team), I don't go anywhere. I just tried to go out there and have fun."

In all the Tar Heels produced over 200 combined kickoff and punt return yards on seven attempts between Logan, Switzer, and T.J. Thorpe.

Staring an embarrassing loss straight in the face, Cincinnati finally put together a touchdown drive, moving 75 yards in nine plays to set up a 15-yard scoring run by Ralph David Abernathy IV.

On UNC's next drive the Tar Heels faced a fourth-and-3 around the Cincinnati 20, and Switzer kept the chains moving with a big catch, gaining eight yards.

A few plays later Morris scored his second touchdown on a one-yard burst, making the count 36-10.

Cincinnati scored again early in the fourth quarter, pulling within 36-17, and then they appeared to get a huge break when Thorpe fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Bearcats recovered inside UNC's 10-yard line.

But in another display of guts and courage by the Tar Heel defenders, they held Cincy out for three straight plays, setting up a fateful fourth down. The Bearcats got what they wanted---a wide-open receiver in the back of the end zone---but Shaq Washington was unable to come up with the potential touchdown catch, and UNC reclaimed possession.

Following the turnover on downs the Tar Heels went into ball control mode---or as close as the Tar Heels come to ball control mode in the fast-paced spread offense---as they kept it on the ground and milked nine minutes and 19 seconds off the clock in 15 plays.

The drive was completed by a 40-yard field goal conversion by Moore, providing the game's final points.

Logan led the Tar Heels in rushing with 77 yards on 15 attempts, while Eric Ebron had seven catches for 78 yards, leading all receivers on the Tar Heels.

UNC rolled up 345 total offensive yards (though Cincinnati actually had slightly more, 349) and the Tar Heels racked up 23 first downs while controlling possession for better than 33 minutes.

Unfortunately, there was one bittersweet moment that tainted the victory a little for UNC, as four-year starter James Hurst rolled his left leg back in the first half and wound up leaving the game.

"That was tough, now (seeing Hurst get hurt)," Fedora replied. "James is a senior, and playing in his last game in Carolina Blue. That was tough to see him go down."

Though it created an opportunity for Nick Appel, also playing in his final game at UNC, to get heavy playing time in the victory, it was a tough way for Hurst, one of the rocks of the Tar Heel program the last few seasons, to finish his college career.

"Appel stepped up and he didn't miss a beat. He might have given up one sack," Fedora said. "We ran the ball effectively throughout the game. We really did. And efficiently. We had very few mistakes throughout the game up front. Especially when you have a guy making his 49th start and goes down during the middle of the game. I thought our guys responded really well."

There's no word yet on the extent of Hurst's injury, though he didn't return to the game and we're told that ESPN didn't wish to show the replay of the injury, calling it 'grotesque.'

With the win, UNC carries a great deal of momentum into the offseason, along with plenty of confidence given how many young players contributed to Carolina's turn-around from a 1-5 start to bowl eligibility and bowl victory.

"Winning is very important. Believe me. And for this football team, starting 1-5, nobody thought we'd be sitting here today. Nobody outside of our locker room," said Fedora.

"I'm really excited about the future. I'm telling you. I'm excited about the future. I really am. We're going in the right direction. Recruiting is going extremely well. There's a buzz around North Carolina about the Tar Heels, and good things are coming in the future."

"We're standing here because of our coaching staff and our senior leadership," added Switzer. "Those two groups together, they didn't let us hang our heads (when we started off so slow). We didn't change anything practice-wise. If anything we practiced harder, because we knew we had the talent to turn our season around. We just had to have the heart to do it. That's a credit to our seniors, and that's why they're going out with a win today."

"As far as what this does for the future, the expectations are just higher. 7-6 is great, especially from where we were at the beginning of the season. (But) we're tired of seven and eight wins," Switzer added.


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