Late interception helps UNC withstand a Hurricane

Linebacker Cedric Gray's game-saving play in the final seconds helped the Tar Heels hold on for a 45-42 win against Miami

UNC linebacker Cedric Gray (33) is congratulated by teammates Desmond Evans (10) and Tony Grimes after his game-saving interception against Miami on Saturday in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina held its first “Late Night” preseason basketball event with new coach Hubert Davis on Friday.

But it was the Tar Heels’ football game on Saturday that was decided by a jump ball.

It came on a third down play in the final minute as Miami was driving for at least a game-tying field goal. Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel batted a Tyler Van Dyke pass into the air and, after it bounced off teammate Jahvaree Ritzie, Cedric Gray outjumped a scrum of players from both teams for the interception that helped UNC preserve a wild 45-42 victory at Kenan Stadium.

The decisive stop was a rarity on an afternoon in which both defenses struggled. The teams combined for 803 yards and 87 points. 

It came at just the right time for the Tar Heels, who inched back over .500 overall (4-3, 3-3 ACC) with the badly needed victory.

“That thing stayed in the air for about an hour and a half,” UNC coach Mack Brown said of the play that ended with Gray’s second interception of the game. “I saw it go through Ritzie’s hands and they were all fighting for it, tipping it. I said, ‘Somebody just get that ball,’ and obviously we did to make a play to win the game.”

Needing only a field goal to tie and a touchdown to win, Miami took possession for the final time with 2:46 remaining and, despite not having any timeouts remaining, methodically drove to the UNC 16.

The Hurricanes (2-4, 0-2) were well within the range of kicker Andres Borregales, but perhaps remembering back to its most recent loss at Virginia — a game in which a potential game-winning field goal bounced off the upright — coach Manny Diaz decided to take a chance and throw the ball on a third-and-4 play.

It turned out to be the wrong decision.

Gemmel disrupted the play before it had a chance to develop by shooting the gap, ignoring the play fake to running back Jaylan Knighton and deflecting the ball just as it left Van Dyke’s hand. That set off mad a scramble that resembled a volleyball match before Gray came down with the rebound with six seconds left on the clock.

While the final play seemed to unfold in slow motion for Brown on the sideline, the opposite was true for the sophomore linebacker who made it happen.

“Everything was kind of happening so fast,” Gray said. “Gemmel had a great tip on the ball, and then we’ve got our guys and Miami guys tipping and fighting over it. Honestly, I was at the right place at the right time. I just got close to the ball and grabbed it, and it fell right into my hands.”

Gray’s interception brought back memories of a similar game-saving pick — in front of the same end zone — by former UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt against Duke in 2019.

This game, however, didn’t have to come down to such a dramatic finish.

The Tar Heels had numerous chances to put Miami away earlier in the game but couldn’t take advantage.

They held the Hurricanes to just 80 yards of total offense in the first half and built an early 18-point lead, but still managed to let Miami stick around thanks to an ill-advised screen pass by Sam Howell that was intercepted for a 33-yard touchdown and a field goal drive in which UNC committed 40 yards in penalties.

Still, the Tar Heels were able to maintain a comfortable lead deep into the third quarter thanks to the running of Ty Chandler and Howell.

Chandler finished with 104 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, while Howell contributed 98 yards and accounted for four touchdowns — two on runs and two on passes to Josh Downs and tight end John Copenhaver. The first of his two rushing scores, a 30-yarder in which he pinballed off several would-be tacklers, put UNC up 38-24.

But while the Tar Heels would eventually get into the end zone one more time, their four other possessions to close out the game resulted in three-and-outs, opening the door for a potential Miami comeback.

“That’s something we’ve got to clean up,” said Howell, who has now contributed to 99 career touchdowns either by passing, rushing or receiving, tying a school record set by Marquise Williams. “When the game is out for us to go out there and take it, we’ve got to succeed in those scenarios. We didn’t do a good enough job of that. 

“When the game is in our hands, we’ve got to make sure we go out there and do our jobs. That’s definitely an area we’ll watch hard on film and emphasize.”

With the door left open by UNC’s offense, Miami drove 97 yards on 12 plays for a score, adding a two-point conversion to get within three. 

Then, just as it seemed as though the Tar Heels were ready to slip even further into the doldrums of a season that hasn’t gone the way anyone in blue and white had planned, the defense stepped up with a play that salved at least some of the disappointment heading into an off week.

“Tonight we said there’s going to be some ups and downs, there’s going to be some adversity and you’re going to be in trouble. Just find a way to win,” said Brown, who described the game as a roller coaster. “That’s the only thing that’s important tonight.

“There will be all the coaches out there that will want go gripe about this, gripe about this, but I’m really, really happy we beat Miami.”