But looking for its first victory in four tries in the contest is UNC (6-6), which will also try to give Coach Larry Fedora his sixth winning season in six seasons as a head coach.
Cincinnati, which is the bowl’s “defending” champion since the Bearcats broke Duke’s heart with a 48-34 comeback win last season, represents the American Athletic Conference with a 9-3 record.
With UNC a 2½-point favorite, it’s cloudy and 53 degrees at kickoff.
Today nobody really expects what happens, as UNC takes control in the first quarter and never looks back in a 39-17 romp.
But UNC’s second possession is much more effective, as the Tar Heels go 68 yards in a methodical 11 plays with Romar Morris going in from two yards out at 5:40 of the quarter. Moore converts.
Big All-ACC senior left tackle James Hurst leaves the game with an injury to his left foot later in the quarter, but the UNC doesn’t miss a beat.
And lightning strikes for the Tar Heels late in the quarter. First, Kareem Martin and Brandon Ellerbe team up to tackle Bearcat QB Brendon Kay in the end zone at 2:25.
Then on the ensuing kickoff T.J. Logan returns the boot 78 yards to pay dirt, with Moore’s kick making it 16-0 at 2:12.
Cincinnati gets on the board with 14:17 left in the half on a 34-yard Tony Miliano field goal that completes a 10-play, 48-yard drive.
UNC takes it to 23-3 with 10:16 left in the half when Marquise Williams connects with Jack Tabb from three yards out and Moore adds the boot. The 76-yard drive takes 12 plays, including Williams’ 17-yard connection with Eric Ebron to the 18 on fourth down.
And the Tar Heels apply the knockout punch with 10:41 left in the third, as Ryan Switzer returns a punt 86 yards for a score — his NCAA record-tying fifth punt-return TD of the season. Moore’s boot is awry and it’s 29-3.
The Bearcats finally get a TD with 8:08 left in the third, as Ralph David Abernathy IV — yes, the grandson of the civil rights icon — goes in from 15 yards out to finish a nine-play, 75-yard march.
But UNC comes back with a one-yard TD from Morris at 3:32, ending a 13-play, 65-yard march that includes a fourth-down completion to Switzer. Moore’s try makes it 36-10.
Cincinnati cuts it to 19 with 14:26 left in the game, as Shaq Washington scores from 10 yards out to finish a three-play, 61-yard excursion with Miliano on the boot. Washington’s 52-yard scamper on the first play sets up the drive.
The Bearcats get one more chance with 14:17 to go when T.J. Thorpe fumbles on the kickoff return and Leviticus Payne recovers at the 6. But Kay’s fourth-down pass is incomplete.
The Tar Heels tack on three more on a 40-yard Moore field goal with 2:52 to go.
Switzer is named MVP after three punt returns for 83 yards and three catches for 22. Williams completes 19 of 33 passes for 171 yards and the TD, also rushing nine times for 46 more. Logan carries 15 times for 77 yards and returns three kickoffs for 120 and the TD. And Ebron ends his career with seven catches for 78 yards.
They said it …
Fedora: “We didn’t play our best game, but we played well enough to win a football game. I thought we dominated, really in the first half. We had some game-changing plays in our special teams that we expect. … You never know when you’re 28 days away from the last game. We got 10-11 practices in and my guys prepared the same way they had the whole season. They were focused, and their intensity level in practice was the same. It boiled down to great preparation and that’s why they played the way they did tonight.”
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville: “Tonight North Carolina had the better team. We didn’t respond very well to adversity. We didn’t play well on either side of the ball on third down for about the first quarter and a half. … (The nine straight points) were tough. They knew we were missing three starters on the offensive line and they threw the kitchen sink at us.”
Switzer: “(After a 1-5 start) we’re standing here because of our coaching staff and our senior leadership. Those two groups together they didn’t let us hang our heads and they didn’t let one person step into that practice facility who wasn’t ready to work. We didn’t change anything practice-wise. If anything we practiced harder. We knew we had the talent and the ability to turn our season around.”
Williams: “I was just mentioning in the locker room that after the Miami game (with a 1-5 record) we started to question ourselves, like, ‘What’s going on? But after guys started to pour their hearts out and cry we knew we had to get it together. We did this for the seniors and I just thank God we’re Belk Bowl champs. This gives us a lot of momentum coming back next year.”
What does it all mean?
That the Tar Heels get a very good taste in their mouths for the next seven months.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Logan’s kickoff return for the TD.
UNC: Won 1.
Cincinnati: Lost 2.
UNC leads 3-0.
UNC vs. Liberty, Aug. 30, 2014
Cincinnati vs. TBA, Aug. 30, 2014