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UNC wins Belk Bowl / December 30, 2013

Explosive speed and elusiveness on special teams and the ability to pressure the quarterback are two critical elements which made a significant difference Saturday in North Carolina’s 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte.

The Tar Heel football operation finished 7-6 in Larry Fedora’s second season in Chapel Hill, rallying after a 1-5 start. All six Tar Heel losses came to teams playing in postseason bowls. This is also Fedora’s first bowl win at UNC.

Carolina, which bolted to a 29-3 lead with 10:41 remaining in the third period, shook off the regular season final loss to Duke and capitalized on strong pre-bowl preparation in the 28-day break heading into the Belk Bowl test against the Bearcats.

T.J. Logan bolted through the Bearcats for a 78-yard kickoff return with 2:12 left in the first period, and then freshman Ryan Switzer put on a dazzling show in an 86-yard punt return, giving UNC the difference-maker. UNC built a 29-3 lead with the return.

Logan also had 77 net yards rushing on 15 carries.

Switzer, who now owns the career punt return touchdown mark record at UNC, had 83 return yards in the bowl. He has a school record 502 on the season.

Switzer came into the fall training camp third on the depth chart for punt returns. Switzer worked his way up the chart and definitely made an impression.

Switzer also credited his teammates on special teams, noting, “Without those ten guys in front of me, I don’t go anywhere. I’m very thankful I’m able to do this right now.”

Switzer also had seen a resurgence in his punt return scoring ability mid-season. “Nothing really changed other than my attitude. I kind of beat myself up, because this coaching staff trusted me enough to bring me here to be a playmaker. I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. So I just tried to go out there and have fun. Thankfully, the ball started bouncing my way. I was able to make some plays, which translated on to the offensive side of the ball.”

The Bearcats, who finished 9-4, could not match Carolina in this bowl show.

The Bearcats entered this bowl 112th nationally in punt return defense, and this flaw certainly showed up in this game. Switzer, who tied the NCAA record with his fifth punt return for a touchdown in a single season, also had one punt return for a touchdown nullified by penalty.

The Tar Heels also applied relentless pressure to Bearcat senior quarterback Brendon Kay, who finished 15-for-35 with one interception, 181 yards passing, no touchdowns and five sacks. The Tar Heels blasted through the Bearcat offensive line for a Kareem Martin safety with 2:25 left in the first period, and Logan’s kickoff return followed at the 2:12 mark.

UNC had a 16-0 lead after the first period, and the Bearcats never recovered. Bandit Brandon Ellerbe also got partial credit for the sack.

Cincinnati eventually recovered to do some real damage to a reconstructed Tar Heel defensive unit, as total offensive yards were almost even (Cincinnati had 349 to Carolina’s 345). But the Bearcats could not recover from their early deficits as Carolina celebrated its bowl win.

Carolina is now 14-16 in bowl games. UNC’s 39-point output was its second-highest total in a bowl game and the most for the program when the Heels racked up 42 against Virginia Tech in the 1998 Gator bowl. Carolina is 15-10 in two seasons under Fedora, who has never had a losing record in six years as a head coach.

“We didn’t play perfect. We didn’t play our best game, but we played well enough to win a football game. We did enough offensively. Defensively, we really played well in the first half. We had game-changing plays in our special teams,” said Fedora.

Fedora said the Heels did a great job with proper focus and intensity level in the break between the loss to Duke and the bowl win. The bowl win also helps establish positives for the future. Fedora believes he has a solid base, including a talented crop of freshmen, adding, “we’re going in the right direction. Recruiting is going extremely well, there’s a positive buzz around the state of North Carolina about the Tar Heels. Good things are coming in the future.”

Carolina had one major loss on the offensive line when senior left tackle James Hurst was injured, but reserve Nick Appel stepped up. Carolina was able to run effectively in the game, finishing with 174 yards and two short scoring bursts from Romar Morris. Hurst was on his 49th start of his career, but the Heels were able to maintain a consistent presence with the running game. Hurst suffered a non-displaced fibula fracture in his left leg in the first half.

UNC quarterback Marquise Williams were 19-for-33 for 171 yards and one touchdown. He was not picked off and was not sacked. “He didn’t play his best game ... but he did enough for us to win a football game, and that’s all that we worry about,” said Fedora.

UNC tight end Eric Ebron, playing his final college game, had a game-high seven catches for 78 yards. He finished the season with 973 receiving yards, the most by any tight end in ACC history.

The special teams prowess clearly gave UNC an edge. The Bearcats made a mistake right of the gate by muffing Carolina’s first punt, although UNC got no points there when Thomas Moore missed wide right on a 40-yard field goal attempt. But UNC got on the board with an 11-play, 68-yard scoring drive to get into gear. Including that drive, the Heels reeled off touchdowns on five of their next eight drives, basically burying the Bearcats.

UNC also bottled up the Bearcat offense, especially in the first half. UNC also did a good job pressuring a Bearcat offensive line that had some injury issues. Kay had to deal with persistent pressure from the Heels.

“We moved around a little bit more up front. A few more stunts, a couple of blitzes that were more exotic than we had been doing, because we were going to be playing with a safety at linebacker for the majority of the game,” said Fedora. “There were some guys on our team, Tre Boston and Tim Scott, that had to learn totally new positions for this bowl game.” Fedora added, “We showed some different things up front....We were playing a defense we’ve really never played, because we didn’t have any linebackers. I thought those safeties did a really nice job. We had a bunch of pressure on that quarterback (Kay).”

The Heels also redeemed what appeared to be a reeling campaign at mid-season. “Finishing 7-6 was critical,” said Fedora. He also noted the 1-5 start, “and nobody thought we’d be sitting here (with a bowl win Saturday). Those kids kept believing and they kept playing hard, and they got it done.” Fedora also noted a positive for recruiting, explaining also that the Charlotte Metro area is important to that overall process.

The Heels also have to get a new offensive coordinator with the departure of Blake Anderson, but Fedora said, “we’ll get the right person. We’ll hire somebody who’ll fit with our staff and run the system.”

Switzer, who set the UNC single season record for punt return average (20.9), said the Heels are hungry and want to improve, as the spring football training period approaches in the off-season.

“We want to get better. 7-6 is great, especially from where we were at the beginning of the season. But it’s not where we want to be as a program,” said Switzer.

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