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UNC vs. Pitt: Position Grades, Part Two: Defense

A rough start with a solid finish.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Gene Chizik’s troops weren’t as stout as they were last weekend against Minnesota, but they stood firm when it mattered. Carolina avenged the rainy overtime loss at Pitt from 2021 to move to 4-0 with a bye week ahead to lick our wounds.

Here are our grades for UNC’s defense against the Pitt Panthers.

Defensive Line: C+

Tar Heel fans who could hold their breath long enough to scout Pitt in their disaster-class against West Virginia were probably licking their chops to get after Phil Jurkovec and a toothless Panther offense that only put up 130 yards on the ground and 81 yards in the air (with three interceptions!). Pitt also managed not to score a single touchdown and were shut out in the second half.

So color me surprised when their offensive line absolutely mauled our defensive line on the opening drive. Pitt went on a 13-play, 6:56 minutes long drive that had positive yardage on every play. They gave a quarterback on a white-hot seat time to make easy completions and get in a groove

Once the game settled and Jurkovec left the game at halftime, UNC was never really threatened on defense again. Kaimon Rucker scored Carolina’s only two sacks, but Des Evans and Beau Atkinson were able to hit the quarterback right at release a couple of times to disrupt throws. If the Tar Heels can get home on time like they did against South Carolina, they’ll be in business.

Linebackers: B

Cedric Gray and Power Echols continue to be efficient and dynamic playmakers. The two were co-leaders in tackles (7) along with Kaimon Rucker. In addition to cleaning up plays at the second level, Gray added a TFL and Echols had 1.5.

Gray also had an absolutely momentum-saving fumble recovery on Pitt’s first offensive play after recovering a blocked punt at UNC’s 20 to begin the fourth quarter. If Pitt managed to score on that turnaround, there was enough time to make things uncomfortable.

One thing to monitor moving forward is Power Echols’ pass coverage. He managed to tip several passes, one that was almost intercepted by Alijah Huzzie. If he continues to get his hands on passes, Carolina’s secondary could gobble up more picks.

Secondary: B+

The story of the game is player of the game Alijah Huzzie. His two interceptions were well taken, one when Pitt was threatening in the red zone, and the other to seal the game away.

The rest of the secondary was hit and miss, most notably Tayon Holloway, whose targeting penalty apparently hit Phil Jurkovec, but was missed by the TV audience when the ACC Network feed went cattywampus. If there was ever a time to get ejected for targeting though, it’s seconds before the first half ends. That’s veteran play from the redshirt freshman.

It was nice to see Stick Lane get some more snaps. The Georgia State transfer responded with six tackles, four solo.

Moving forward, if Carolina has a poor quarterback, it would be nice to see the secondary take a bit more risk and really press and smother receivers. Giving too much cushion and allowing sub-par quarterbacks space and time to get in a rhythm is only asking for trouble. Unproven quarterbacks need to have their necks stepped on.