A lot of us wrote, during the week leading up to Saturday’s game against Campbell, that it was coming at an opportune time for UNC to reset, or have a get-right game, or whatever you want to call it. This was especially true of the defense, which after looking like a unit that could create enough havoc to at least pretend to be decent, had been embarrassed for two straight weeks by bad offenses that figured out that the Tar Heels couldn’t stop them if they just went uptempo.
For the first quarter and change, the Camels didn’t really let that happen, reeling off a couple of big-time uptempo drives themselves, racking up 109 yards in the first quarter at over 6 yards a play, staying level with the Heels through the game’s first 21 minutes. UNC got up 14-7, then the Camels marched down the field before stalling in the red zone and badly missing a short field goal. After another quick UNC touchdown, it felt like if the Heels could get one more stop, the game would start feeling the way it had been supposed to feel, instead of as surprisingly competitive as it had. That’s when Cedric Gray came alive. On the ensuing drive, he sacked the Campbell quarterback on 2nd down for a loss of 13 yards, then stopped the third and long give-up draw to force a punt. From then on, Gray was everywhere, leading the charge for the Tar Heel defense as they didn’t give up another point for the rest of the game. He finished the game with a team-leading 9 tackles (7 solo), 3 of them for loss. Those included two sacks — the aforementioned one and one of the Campbell punter on fourth down who looked like he was going to attempt a pass before Gray got to him and forced a fumble that was recovered by Will Hardy, which led to Drake Maye’s final drive of the evening and officially put the Heels in future mode.
The most important thing this game could have done was make the UNC defense feel like it could play again, after a couple of demoralizing weeks. If that’s happened at all, it’s thanks to Cedric Gray taking charge and making a bunch of impact, game-defining plays, the primary way that this defense has succeeded all season long. There were several other great performances in this game: Drake Maye picking apart the Camels’ secondary to the tune of 4 touchdowns on 16 completions; Connor Harrell showing promise in his first real career action; Omarion Hampton hitting 100 yards for the fourth straight game en route to a 1000-yard season with 4 games to go; Marcus Allen making a couple of great individual plays to keep the Camels from scoring on two promising drives before the rest of the defense caught up — but Gray’s domination, I think, meant more than anything else we saw on Saturday. Hopefully it reverberates through this final stretch of the season.