Brendon Kay

UNC special teams too much for Cincinnati in Belk Bowl

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Special teams were the key to North Carolina’s 39-17 victory over Cincinnati in the 2013 Belk Bowl on Saturday.

Ryan Switzer — the game’s MVP — returned his NCAA-record-tying fifth punt return for a touchdown and T.J. Logan took back a kickoff 78 yards for a score as the Tar Heels surged to a 29-3 lead then survived a special teams mistake of their own to notch their first bowl win since 2010.

UNC finishes the season at 7-6, while Cincinnati closes out at 9-4.

The game turned in favor of the Tar Heels during a key first quarter sequence. With UNC up, 7-0, punter Tommy Hibbard nailed a 59-yard punt that pinned the Bearcats at their own six. Three plays later, Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay was sacked by Brandon Ellerbee and Kareem Martin for a safety to make the score, 9-0. The Bearcats free-kicked back to the Tar Heels and that’s when Logan weaved his way to a 78-yard kickoff return. Suddenly, it was 16-0 and the Bearcats were stunned.

UNC opened its lead to 36-10 before Cincinnati regained its composure. Receiver Shaq Washington moved over to quarterback and promptly ripped off a 52-yard run. Two plays later, he was in the end zone after a nifty 10-yard scamper and the score was 36-17 with the fourth quarter barely underway.

Things got more interesting when Leviticus Payne recovered a fumble by T.J. Thorpe on the ensuing kickoff. The Bearcats had a first and goal at the UNC five yard line with plenty of time left. Would UNC choke this one away?

Not this time. The Tar Heels held when Kay’s fourth-down pass fell off the hands of Washington in the corner of the end zone.

It was a flat performance by the Bearcats, who came into the game as winners of six of their last seven. UC will try to regroup next year, most likely with touted Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel taking over at quarterback.

North Carolina finished up the season on a hot note, winning six of its last seven games (the one loss was by two points to Duke). A 1-5 start prevented this talented team from reaching its potential, but Larry Fedora has to be happy with how things worked out in the end, winning his first bowl game as the Tar Heels head coach.

Belk Bowl blow out? UNC leads Cincinnati at half

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North Carolina looks about as comfortable as a team could be, and why not? The Tar Heels are suited up in their home uniforms and playing in Charlotte, North Carolina. After one half of play, only a key injury on the offensive line has taken away from the performance put together against Cincinnati. North Carolina leads Cincinnati 23-3.

North Carolina senior left tackle James Hurst was taken out of the game in the first quarter with what appeared to be a serious left leg injury. The video replay of the injury was not shown on the broadcast, which suggests the injury was significant. He was helped off the field by medical staff without planting any weight on his left leg on the way to the sideline and he was later carted off the field.

In similar fashion to last year’s Belk Bowl, Cincinnati dug a hole early. Last year the Bearcats managed to dig out of the early deficit to beat Duke, so time will tell if the same winning formula can be found. It does not look good though as things got away from them early in this one. North Carolina struck first with a short touchdown run by Romar Morris. The teams then traded punts, with North Carolina pinning Cincinnati against their own goal line. The defense took advantage with a push up the middle to bring down Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay for a safety. Kareem Martin and Brandon Ellerbe each got credit for the two-point sack. To capitalize on the sequence, T.J. Logan returned the free kick 78 yards for a touchdown and a 16-0 lead.

Sneak Peek: 2013 Belk Bowl

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WHO: 9-3 Cincinnati (AAC) vs. 6-6 North Carolina (ACC)

WHAT: Belk Bowl (12th Year)

WHERE: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina

WHEN: Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET

WHY: Cincinnati is back in the Belk Bowl a year after pulling away from Duke in a wild finish. This year the Bearcats face one of the hottest teams in the ACC, North Carolina. That’s right, the Tar Heels enter the postseason having lost to Duke but still are a dangerous team after turning their season around by winning five of their final six games just to become bowl eligible. With some dangerous offensive players, Cincinnati could have their hands full on defense.

The biggest player to keep an eye on for the Tar Heels may be tight end Eric Ebron. Few players can match Ebron’s size, hands and speed at the position, and he is going to be a constant presence all over the field, especially over the middle for Cincinnati. The Tar Heels also have a quarterback in Marquise Williams who will give the offense some options between run and pass. Williams has filled in nicely for the injured Bryn Renner.

Tommy Tuberville‘s team battled through a quarterback injury that was once thought to be the first nail in the coffin of the season. the loss of Munchie Legeaux was a setback but Brendon Kay entered in relief in admirable fashion. Kay passed for 3,121 yards and 22 touchdowns to keep Cincinnati’s offense on pace to make a run for a conference title.

This will likely become a battle between North Carolina’s up-tempo offense and the Cincinnati defense that will have to keep up. If Larry Fedora‘s system can wear down players like Cincinnati’s Greg Blair, the Tar Heels may be able to come up with a few more big plays to pull out a winning season nobody may have seen coming back in the middle of October.

PREDICTION: North Carolina 29, Cincinnati 23

Louisville wins Keg of Nails, sends UCF to the BCS

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If this is the last Keg of Nails game for a long stretch of time, at least it is going out in style. No. 19 Louisville (11-1, 7-1 AAC) and Cincinnati (9-3, 6-2 AAC) exchanged scores in the fourth quarter, and the two rivals needed to settle the score in overtime. Louisville scored first in overtime and then held Cincinnati out of the end zone for a 31-24 victory. With the result, UCF clinched a spot in a BCS bowl game. Louisville has already accepted a spot in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.

Louisville saw an early 10-0 lead slip away midway through the third quarter when Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay pushed forward just enough to pick up a short touchdown run, his second of the game, to give Cincinnati a 14-10 lead. That lead would hold in to the fourth quarter. Midway through the fourth quarter the fun got started. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, one play after being taken down shy of a first down, worked some magic to escape would-be-tacklers to extend a 4th and 12 play for a first down and later tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Damian Copeland to cap a 13-play, 86-yard drive to regain the lead, 17-14. The play was a thing of beauty with Bridgewater again avoiding defenders to keep a play alive before heaving a rainbow to the right corner of the end zone for Copeland. Cincinnati wasted little time in striking back.

Kay completed a 57-yard pass to Mekale McKay to quickly enter the red zone, and one play later Ralph Abernathy rushed right up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown to take a 21-17 lead. As was the theme for the fourth quarter, this was not the end of the scoring. Bridgewater again drove Louisville’s offense down field, and he put Louisville back in front with a short touchdown pass to DeVante Parker on a play that appeared to have pass interference on both sides with no call. Up 24-21, Louisville could not hold on to the lead, with Cincinnati stretching the field in similar fashion to the way UCF defeated Louisville with a late score. This time Louisville managed to hold Cincinnati to a field goal, which led the game in to overtime tied at 24-24.

Louisville running back Dominique Brown scored a short touchdown run in the first overtime possession for a 31-24 lead, and Cincinnati’s final attempt on a fourth and long attempt fell incomplete to seal the fate of the game, and for UCF’s bowl plans.

UCF is now guaranteed the top spot in the American this season. No matter what happens at SMU on Saturday, UCF can do no worse than tie with Louisville for the conference crown. Thanks to an earlier head-to-head victory over the Cardinals, UCF wins the tiebreaker for the conference’s automatic BCS berth. UCF will play in their first BCS bowl game in bowl history.

Louisville finishes the regular season with a respectable 11-1 record but will not be in the BCS at-large conversation considering all of the teams still in front of them and the likelihood of Northern Illinois advancing to a BCS bowl game. Still, the success of the Cardinals this season will provide some momentum as they begin to shift conference affiliations from the AAC to the ACC next year. The big question left to answer for now is whether or not Bridgewater will be there or playing Sundays.

Bridgewater’s final game of the 2013 season may not have been overly impressive just by looking at the numbers, but he had his moments that make you say “wow.” Considering the shallow depth of the NFL’s quarterback class of 2014, Bridgewater could be a certain high draft pick.

Cincinnati had their shot to win a share of the conference championship, but the 10 wins achieved this season suggest this program will remain one of the top teams in the American in 2014.

Louisville owns slim lead at half of Keg of Nails battle

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Some good defenses have shown up for some Thursday night football, but what else would you expect from a rivalry that awards an actual keg of nails to the winning team? Louisville jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but a late touchdown by Cincinnati cut the Cardinals’ lead to 10-7 at the half.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has had a bit of a rough first half, completing just six of 14 pass attempts, but his 36-yard touchdown pass to Davante Parker in the first quarter gave Louisville an early 7-0 lead. Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay has also had some forgettable moments in the first half, thanks to two interceptions, but his push forward on the goal line late in the half got the home team on the scoreboard and cut in to Louisville’s lead. Kay headed to the locker room just a little earlier than the rest of the team with members of the medical staff after a physical half. A late drive by Louisville ended with Bridgewater being intercepted along the left sideline, although it appeared it may have actually been an incomplete pass.

A Louisville win will give UCF the American’s automatic BCS bid regardless of what happens in Saturday’s game between the Knights and SMU. A Cincinnati win would earn the Bearcats at least a share of the conference’s title, leaving the BCS bid to be determined by highest BCS ranking. As it stands now, that advantage would go to UCF. However, a Cincinnati win and a UCF loss on Saturday would give Cincinnati the conference championship, as UCF would likely potentially below Cincinnati in the BCS standings.