CHAPEL HILL, N.C — 4-0 and now ranked No.15 in the AP Top 25 Poll, it is clear things are settling in for North Carolina and a big part of their success is a group that no one thought would be able to handle pressure: the defense.
After giving up just one touchdown in the second half against Pittsburgh, the Tar Heels earned their first road win and the defensive unit earned its respect back. Excluding a mistaken-ridden outing against App State, North Carolina’s defense across three games has shown growth in their ability to keep opposing offenses out of the endzone during the second half.
Both South Carolina and Minnesota could only muster up field goals in the second half and last Saturday at Pittsburgh, the defense allowed just one touchdown in the third quarter of the game.
Who are the main guys leading the charge of a newly-dominant UNC defense?
It’s a mixture of talent from familiar faces like Cedric Gray and Power Echols logging big plays, but there’s also one other player who’s made his mark and history – Alijah Huzzie.
Before arriving at UNC in January, Huzzie’s games would be broadcast on ESPN+ – a service that his family had to pay for in order to watch. Now? They get to see him flash on the big screen at no extra cost.
Against Pittsburgh, the ETSU transfer put up a star-studded performance and quickly settled into his groove as a Tar Heel. How did it happen?
Let’s go back to that game at Acrisure Stadium Saturday night.
The Panthers, as expected, brought the physicality and leaped to a 14-7 advantage early in the second quarter. But the Tar Heels weren’t concerned, striking back on the following drive that saw Drake Maye haul a 40-yard pass to an open John Copenhaver who was poised and ready inside Pitt’s 10-yard line. Just a few plays later Maye scored on fourth and one, scrambling left into the end zone to tie the game at 14 all.
And then it was Huzzie’s turn.
Just a minute-and-a-half later with 7:23 seconds left on the clock, the ETSU transfer secured his first career punt return for a touchdown and the program’s first since 2018. Like I said, historic.
On the Panther’s first punt, Huzzie made up for the “missed assignments” head coach Mack Brown was talking about all last week and took off with the ball en route to a 52-yard return. He wove through six Pitt defenders seamlessly and with ease, lifting his team to a 21-14 lead – an advantage they held onto for the remainder of the game eventually winning 41-24.
What did he do after the play?
He turned to the UNC section and found his mother, whose name he has tattooed on him and said, “Hey I scored,” with a chuckle and a grin that stretched across his face from ear to ear.
But his impact last Saturday didn’t end on special teams. The junior also collected two interceptions, his first as a Tar Heel, and one pass breakup on the defensive side of the ball. With each of these plays he’s shown a knack for knowing where the ball is going to go — making sure that it ends up in his hands.
As a group that had many question marks leading up to the season and conference play, their ACC-opening victory shut out all the doubts and is certainly evidence of a shift in the right direction.
It’s about time for a defense that’s had its fair share of lapses.
In fact, they performed so well that they earned two ACC Player of the Week honors, one acknowledging defensive lineman Kaimon Rucker—his second of the
season—and the other going to Huzzie as ACC Specialist of the Week.
Four games in and he’s already made a name for himself in the Tar Heel secondary and earned respect on that side of the ball, but that’s not the only place where his playmaking instincts have been celebrated.
After the game, Maye announced that he wanted to treat Huzzie to dinner this week, a gesture that shows respect from his quarterback, placing Huzzie’s accomplishments on a pedestal for everybody to witness.
Where does the Georgia native want to use his free meal?
He thought about that question for a moment and then replied with one of his own.
“Is there a Texas Roadhouse in Chapel Hill?”