With the win, UNC finished the year with a 7-6 record while Cincinnati fell to 9-4 on the season.
Carolina wasted no time jumping out to a quick 16-0 lead with the help of a ferocious safety by Kareem Martin and a kick return by T.J. Logan. The Tar Heels controlled both sides of the ball with inspired play.
Freshman Ryan Switzer carried over his electric play from the regular season into the postseason. He set a UNC career record for punt returns for touchdowns with his fifth return on the year in the third quarter.
And as for Eric Ebron, he finished with 78 yards on seven receptions in his final game in Carolina uniform while sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams delivered a steady performance as a game manager.
Running back Ralph David Abernathy dashed to the end zone for Cincinnati midway through the second half, but the gap was too wide for the Bearcats to overcome as the Tar Heel defense stiffened to come up with crucial stops when it mattered most.
Logan received the opening kickoff for the Tar Heels. Quarterback Marquise Williams opened proceedings for Carolina, but it was a three and out for the offense.
On the opening punt, a Cincinnati player ran into the ball and it was recovered by Carolina’s Jabari Price.
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Ryan Switzer carried the ball around the end on the next play for a gain of eight yards. But on a fourth and one, the Tar Heels chose to kick a field goal.
UNC’s failed to capitalize on the good field position when Thomas Moore’s field goal missed the mark. Cincinnati took over and soon confronted a third down and six scenario. Brendon Kay picked up the first down with a keeper up the gut.
The UNC defense delivered on the next play when Nathan Staub sacked Kay deep in the backfield. A Bearcat punt soon followed with 9:19 left on the first quarter clock.
Junior tight end Eric Ebron hurdled a defender as he dashed down the field, moving the chains. A Williams pass sailed just too long to a wide open Switzer for a touchdown. Logan smashed ahead for solid yardage to set up a third down and one from the Cincinnati 48 yard line.
The Tar Heels kept moving the chains with a varied offense replete with crisp passes to TJ Thorpe and spirited runs by Logan. The drive was capped off by a two-yard touchdown run by Romar Morris to give Carolina the 7-0 lead with 5:40 left in the first quarter.
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UNC cornerback Tim Scott sacked Kay on the next Cincinnati offensive series and forced another Bearcat punt. Spark plug Switzer broke free for a bit on the return, but an illegal block in the back brought the play back.
Carolina offensive tackle James Hurst was helped off the field in an apparent ankle injury on the next series. And a beautiful Tommy Hibbard 59-yard punt pinned Cincinnati back inside their own 10-yard line.
With 2:25 on the first quarter clock, Kareem Martin broke through the line and ferociously wrapped up Kay in the end zone to record a safety for Carolina and notch the score up to 9-0 in favor of the Tar Heels.
And the free kick was returned for a touchdown by TJ Logan to propel the Tar Heels to a 16-0 lead with 2:12 remaining in the first quarter. Carolina had quickly seized all the momentum.
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Cincinnati crossed the 50-yard line for the first time in the game on the next possession, and as the first quarter expired the Bearcats had the ball second down and 10 from the UNC 21-yard line.
The Bearcats settled for a 34-yard field goal to get on the scoreboard with 14:17 left in the half.
A nice pass from Williams to Ebron moved the chains. Thorpe added a nice gainer out to the sideline after that. Head Coach Larry Fedora’s offense was firing on all cylinders.
And a fourth down conversion to Ebron kept the drive alive for UNC. On the doorstep of the end zone, the Tar Heels handed it off to Logan, but he came up just short of the score.
Jack Tabb caught Williams’ pass on third down for a touchdown that extended Carolina’s lead out to 23-3 with 10:16 on the first half clock. Carolina was having its way with the Bearcat defense.
Cincinnati needed to answer with a scoring drive of their own, but a Norkeithus Otis sack stalled their drive and forced a 46-yard field goal attempt. Tony Miliano missed the three-point try.
The Tar Heels were unable to get anything going on the ensuing possession. Thorpe dropped a pass that would have given UNC a first down.
The punters were getting plenty of exercise in this first half. UNC held Cincinnati to another three and out.
A vicious hit on Williams resulted in an automatic first down to keep the Tar Heel offense on the field. The diversity of the Carolina warp-speed attack was proving difficult for the Bearcats to defend. A first down catch by Sean Tapley was soon coupled by a pair of incompletions from Williams. The third down play saw a Bearcat sack that forced a UNC punt.
The first half winded to a close as the Cincinnati elected to run out the clock. The Tar Heels held an impressive 23-3 lead as both teams ran into the locker rooms at Bank of America Stadium.
The halftime stats sheet disparity wasn’t as wide as one may think. Carolina only outgained Cincinnati 189 yards to 134 yards and had 11 first downs to Cincy’s 9.
Logan led Carolina running backs with 66 yards and RD Abernathy lead Cincinnati rushers with 37 yards. Quarterback Marquise Williams went 11-22 for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Cincinnati got the ball first the open up the second half. And the Bearcats had a much higher sense of urgency on their side, slashing through the Tar Heel defense with a heavy dose of Abernathy on the ground.
But a massive sack by Brandon Ellerbe on third down forced a Bearcat punt once again. An electric Ryan Switzer punt return ignited the crowd. It was Switzer’s fifth return on the year, a career record for any Tar Heel, and Switzer shattered it in his freshman year and UNC’s overall seventh on the season, a national leading number.
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The Tar Heels led the Bearcats 29-3 with 9:38 left in the third quarter. But Cincinnati answered right back with a scoring drive capped off by an Abernathy touchdown run to close the Bearcats to within 29-10 with 8:08 left in the third quarter.
Ebron recorded his 60th reception of the year on the following drive, good enough for second-most by a tight end in ACC history behind UVA’s Heath Miller. And a gutsy grab by Switzer on fourth down kept the Tar Heel drive going.
The touchdown was cashed in by Morris from one yard out. The backs were running hard, and Carolina earned a 36-10 advantage with 3:32 remaining in third quarter.
Cincinnati broke loose and earned a first and goal scenario to start the fourth quarter. Shaq Washington polished off the drive with a touchdown to narrow the gap down to 36-17 with 14:26 remaining in the game.
A potential game-changing play followed when Thorpe fumbled the kickoff return and Cincinnati recovered inside the UNC 10-yard line. But the Tar Heel defense held strong, forcing a fourth down. Head Coach Tommy Tuberville elected to go for the touchdown, but the pass was dropped, killing all possible momentum for the Bearcats.
And UNC made sure of that. The Tar Heels promptly put together a back-crushing nine-minute drive that ate up the clock and resulted in a field goal and a 39-17 lead for Carolina. And senior safety Tre Boston’s interception on the next series sealed the 39-17 win for UNC.
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