For the first three weeks of the season, Alijah Huzzie was playing pretty excellent football for the Tar Heels, but being pretty quiet in doing so. Every now and then he’d make his presence felt, like with his four-play stretch to seal the game against App State, but for the most part, he was just doing his job: sticking to his assignments, making tackles, and not letting receivers catch anything easy on him. He just didn’t have a ton of splash plays, so it probably took a slightly more attentive eye than that of a casual viewer to notice that #28 in blue was kind of a baller.
He wasn’t wearing blue on Saturday, but the secret is out now - Alijah Huzzie is, as the cool kids say, him. The cornerback was an absolute game-breaker against Pittsburgh on Saturday night, first opening eyes with a 29-yard punt return on his first return of the season before, one Pitt drive later, taking his next punt return 52 yards to the house to give UNC a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a game that had been back and forth until then.
And then, as if his special teams work wasn’t enough, Huzzie broke up a pass on third down on Pitt’s next drive, forcing a field goal try that prevented the Panthers from tying the game at 21 and gave the Heels enough time for a 3-minute touchdown drive that put them up two scores at the half. As the teams went into their locker rooms, we in the Tar Heel Blog Slack were already crowning Huzzie the Player of the Game, and his highlight reel was only half full.
In the second half, the Heels scored another touchdown to open things up and then traded two field goals for a Pitt kickoff return touchdown before Pitt started a drive with good field position and backup quarterback Christian Veilleux decided to test Huzzie deep. That’s not a great idea for most decent-to-good quarterbacks. For Veilleux, who was 8/19 for 88 yards in his half of work, it was predictably disastrous: Huzzie finally got his first pick of the year, putting a kibosh on Pitt’s hopes for a decent-looking drive and, ultimately, the rest of the game; Pitt wouldn’t score again. Huzzie added another interception late in the fourth quarter for good measure on a desperation attempt by Veilleux and almost made another house call on the return, getting pushed out at the Pitt 22 after a 33-yard runback that ended a game that had been all but over for basically the whole fourth quarter. In the end, Huzzie had two picks and a pass breakup, 114 return yards, and a touchdown. Those are video game numbers for a non-offensive player, and while UNC beat Pitt on multiple fronts, it was Huzzie who broke things open and stood out the most. Hopefully, the East Tennessee State transfer has a lot more like this performance to offer.
Honorable mentions include Drake Maye, who played his cleanest game yet in going 22/30 for 296 yards and 3 all-purpose touchdowns to no turnovers; J.J. Jones, who stepped up as a receiver to pull in 6 catches for 117 yards; Kaimon Rucker, who got back to his early-season ways with two huge sacks and two pressures on top of it; and Noah Burnette, who calmly hit 43- and 48-yard field goals in the third quarter to keep the UNC scoring ledger moving when the offense had stalled a little bit. During a weekend where kicking troubles foiled multiple college teams, in the ACC and elsewhere, it was great to have that kind of reliability from a guy who didn’t even start the season as the starting kicker.