North Carolina coach Mack Brown said midway through the season that the Tar Heels were still searching for an identity. That search may be over after their 45-42 win over Miami on Saturday in Kenan Stadium.
The flaws were all on display: Quarterback Sam Howell threw a pick-6 on the second drive of the game. The false-start penalty where the official didn’t name one player, but instead said, “everyone on the offensive line except the center.” Cornerback Kyler McMichael whiffed on two tackles that led to big plays, including a 60-yard touchdown catch.
But so was their fortitude: Linebacker Cedric Gray didn’t give up on a 33-yard reception, chasing down receiver Keyshawn Smith to make a diving tackle. Howell kept getting back up despite taking some big hits — including on two roughing-the-passer penalties — and finished with 98 yards rushing. The defense came up with two fourth-quarter stops when Miami had the ball and a chance to take the lead.
None of it makes up for Carolina’s stumbles this season. But it should be an indicator of what to expect as the season plays out.
“Tonight showed me a lot, just obviously the season’s been up and down, so many mixed emotions, and we didn’t we didn’t just lay down,” said Howell, who had two touchdowns rushing and two passing. “I thought on both sides of the ball and on special teams, we laid it all out there on the field and gave it everything we got. That’s all I ask from this team.”
And that may be the identity that the Heels (4-3, 3-3 ACC) move forward with to finish out the season.
This wasn’t Miami kicker Andy Borregales missing a potential game-winning field goal, as he did against Virginia as time expired. This was Carolina defensive coordinator Jay Bateman calling a blitz. UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel getting the better of his matchup with center Jakai Clark to be in a position to deflect quarterback Tyler Van Dyke’s pass. This was Carolina snatching victory out of the air in the form of Gray intercepting that tipped pass with 6 seconds left.
“The only thing that matters in the end is that you’re passionate, and you’re confident and you leave everything out on the field, and you find a way to win,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “And all of that happened with our team.“
That Gray was the hero proved more than him just being in the “right place at the right time,” as he would sum up his game-saving interception.
Brown described Gray as “lightly recruited” out of high school. But he said the former safety and inside receiver was very smart and has shown improvement in each of his six consecutive starts at linebacker.
“I always believed in myself and my talent and my ability,” Gray said. “So I’m just really continuing to learn more and more and just get better as the weeks go on.”
Carolina’s previous three wins came relatively easily. The average margin of victory over Georgia State, Virginia and Duke was 31 points. The Cavaliers pushed them for a half before getting buried by a second-half scoring barrage.
The Hurricanes (2-4, 0-2 ACC) wouldn’t be buried. They twice rallied from 14 points down to pull within a possession of taking the lead. The first time came as the game went from the third to the fourth quarter. The Canes’ trailed 38-34 and stopped Carolina with a three-and-out.
Miami moved the ball into UNC territory before facing third-and-3 at the UNC 42. Gray batted down a pass and safety Giovanni Biggers was credited for a pass breakup on fourth down, as the Tar Heels’ defense held.
It was on the defense again with 2:46 left in the game to come up with a stop or at least limit the Canes to a game-tying field-goal attempt. Playing conservatively allowed Miami to march down to the UNC 16, when Bateman decided to start blitzing. Gemmel and Gray then teamed up for Carolina’s biggest defensive stop since Chazz Surratt’s interception in the end zone beat Duke in 2019.
“To be able to win a game like this, to be able to scrap, scrap the whole game and win, I think that toughens us up a little bit,” Gemmel said. “We knew there was gonna be adversity tonight; what were we gonna do when adversity hits? And to see us fight back like that, I think starts to build a little bit better culture around here.”
Carolina will get an off week to enjoy the win before getting ready to play at Notre Dame on Oct. 30. The Heels won’t be thinking about what’s gone wrong this season, about falling from top 10 to not mentioned at all. They’ll gladly celebrate this win and all the mistakes they overcame to get it.
“This is a real positive for our program,” Brown said. “And I am really really excited about it.”