BELK RETURNS PAY OFF FOR HEELS
Cincinnati’s final pass was juggled by North Carolina safety Dominique Green and fell right into the hands of senior Tré Boston.
For Boston, it was a fitting ending to a wild career at UNC. The senior class had played through an NCAA investigation, the ensuing sanctions that kept them from the 2012 ACC championship game and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff.
That experience battling through adversity came in handy this year when the Tar Heels started 1-5. But UNC (7-6) turned around its season with a five straight wins to qualify for the Belk Bowl, where it clinched a winning record Saturday with a 39-17 win at Bank of America Stadium.
“That was Green’s ball, and for it to be tipped to me, I told Green that was God paying me off for four years of hard work,” said Boston, who was still cradling the ball outside the locker room after the game. “That was a blessing to end my career like that.”
Even the final game of Boston’s time at UNC required some extra work. With both starting linebackers battling injuries, the second-team all-ACC free safety played all but 10 snaps on defense at linebacker.
After using the 10 bowl practices to learn the position, Boston recorded a team-high nine tackles as UNC scored the first 16 points to win its first bowl game under second-year coach Larry Fedora.
“Winning’s always very important, so finishing 7-6 is critical,” Fedora said. “And not only that, but starting 1-5 — no one thought we’d be sitting here today, really, at least no one outside of our locker room. And those kids kept playing and they kept believing and they got it done.”
Freshman Ryan Switzer was named MVP of the game after recording an NCAA record-tying fifth punt return for a touchdown, helping UNC to just its second bowl win since 2001 and its first in four tries in Charlotte.
The offensive line made up for the loss of senior all-ACC left tackle James Hurst, who suffered a non-displaced fibula fracture in his left leg in the first quarter, while the defense recorded five sacks for 51 yards, including a first-quarter safety by Kareem Martin.
“Once that first sack happened, everyone just started licking their chops,” Martin said. “It was like the flood gates opened and everyone just started to get a taste and hits on the quarterback.”
One 2½ minute stretch in the first quarter showed the Fedora philosophy of making big plays in all three phases and led to the early 16-point lead.
The scoring started with a 68-yard drive by the offense, which got 40 yards on five carries by freshman T.J. Logan and then a 2-yard touchdown run by Romar Morris to go ahead 7-0. On Cincinnati’s next drive, Martin fought through a double-team and helped Brandon Ellerbe sack Brendon Kay in the end zone for UNC’s first safety since 2009.
Logan returned the ensuing free kick 78 yards — UNC’s first kickoff return for a touchdown in its 30-game bowl history — to give the Tar Heels a 16-0 lead.
The Bearcats (9-4) had spotted Duke an early 16-0 lead before scoring 27 straight points in their 48-34 Belk Bowl win last year. But after Cincinnati kicked a 34-yard field goal early in the second quarter, the Tar Heels responded with another long touchdown drive, which included a 17-yard completion to tight end Eric Ebron on fourth-and-8 and ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Tabb.
Ebron, a junior who will enter the NFL Draft, finished with a game-high seven catches for 78 yards. His 973 receiving yards this season are the most by any tight end in ACC history and the fourth-highest total for any receiver in school history.
Switzer’s punt return for a touchdown made it 29-3 early in the third quarter, but the Bearcats made one final push.
After Cincinnati cut UNC’s lead to 36-17, Jordan High graduate T.J. Thorpe fumbled the ensuing kickoff to give the Bearcats the ball on the 6.
UNC forced a turnover on downs, and iced the game with a drive that lasted 9:19 and ended with a season-long 40-yard field goal from East Chapel Hill product Thomas Moore.
All that was left was the interception for Boston and the Gatorade bath for Fedora as the seniors got to celebrate one final time.
“We’ve got seniors who have been doing this for a while and had many different coaches,” Logan said. “We felt like we had to come out and play hard for them to send them off in the right way.”
|NORTH CAROLINA 39, CINCINNATI 17|
NC_Morris 2 run (T.Moore kick), 5:40.
NC_Logan 78 kickoff return (T.Moore kick), 2:12.
Cin_FG Miliano 34, 14:17.
NC_Tabb 3 pass from Williams (T.Moore kick), 10:16.
NC_Switzer 86 punt return (kick failed), 10:41.
Cin_Abernathy 15 run (Miliano kick), 8:08.
NC_Morris 1 run (T.Moore kick), 3:32.
Cin_Washington 10 run (Miliano kick), 14:26.
NC_FG T.Moore 40, 2:52.
|Time of Possession||26:36||33:24|
RUSHING_Cincinnati, Washington 4-67, Abernathy 13-67,
Williams 10-46, Green 1-3, Kay 8-(minus 15). North Carolina,
Logan 15-77, Williams 9-46, Francis 10-28, Morris 10-16, Switzer 1-8,
Q.Davis 1-(minus 1).
PASSING_Cincinnati, Kay 15-35-1-181, Washington 1-1-0-0.
North Carolina, Williams 19-33-0-171.
RECEIVING_Cincinnati, McClung 4-31, Washington 3-36,
Abernathy 3-23, C.Moore 2-46, McKay 1-23, Morrison 1-11, Annen 1-6,
Williams 1-5. North Carolina, Ebron 7-78, Tapley 4-22, Switzer 3-22,
Thorpe 2-36, Q.Davis 1-6, Logan 1-4, Tabb 1-3.