CHARLOTTE, NC – Mack Brown, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and their players continue to insist that North Carolina’s defense last season wasn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

It’s an argument they’re never going to win.

The statistics just don’t lie.

The Heels gave up more points and more yards than anyone in the league. And they compounded that by recording the fewest sacks as well.

Since they can’t do anything about rewriting history or changing the narrative around those basic facts, their only option is wiping the slate clean, starting over fresh and taking advantage of the opportunity the start of a new season brings.

One game in, consider it mission accomplished.

Heisman Trophy contender Drake Maye did what he does, throwing for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns in UNC’s 31-17 victory against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday.

But instead of the Tar Heels winning in spite of their defense, as they did several times on the way to the ACC’s final Coastal Division championship in 2022, this time they won because of that defense.

UNC gave up minus-2 net rushing yards, sacked quarterback Spencer Rattler 9 times and came up big with 3 key stops during a 2nd half in which it allowed only a single field goal in a performance that more than justified the Tar Heels’ preseason selection as the best of the rest behind the ACC’s top 2 frontrunners Clemson and Florida State.

While at the same time giving holdovers like senior linebacker Kaimon Rucker an opportunity to tell their critics “I told you so.”

“We definitely took it to heart. It gave us a chip on our shoulder,” Rucker said of the constant stream of criticism the defense has been hearing. “It made us more eager to show people ‘I know what y’all are saying about our defense, but we’re not as bad as you think we are.

“We took ownership of getting more sacks, more (tackles for loss), creating more havoc. And I feel like we showed that tonight.”

Did they ever.

Brown and Chizik executed an extreme makeover on their defense since the Holiday Bowl loss to Oregon last December that ended an otherwise successful 2022 season on a 4-game skid.

They completely revamped their secondary through the transfer portal and brought in Amari Gainer from conference rival Florida State to bolster that anemic pass rush.

While Gainer did what he was recruited to do by recording 2 sacks in his UNC debut and graduate cornerback Alijah Huzzie was 2nd on the team with 8 tackles and a pass breakup, it was the holdovers — the ones with the chips on their shoulders — that did most of the heavy lifting on Saturday.

Rucker got 2 sacks of his own. All-American linebacker Cedric Gray and redshirt freshman Beau Atkinson each added 1.5 while Tomari Fox and Desmond Evans also got into the act with 1 each.

“I know there’s this narrative about what their defense is,” Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said. “But they have good players.”

The 9 sacks were more than half the total of 17 UNC’s defense mustered for an entire 14-game season a year ago. There were also 16 TFLs.

As impressive as those statistics might be, the numbers that were most important to a dominant opening night effort weren’t the kind that jump off the page and immediately catch the eye.

The Tar Heels limited their opponent to only 4 conversions on 14 3rd down situations. And they shut South Carolina out on all 4 of its 4th down attempts.

Three of those stops, all coming in the 2nd half, were game-changers.

The 1st came after the Gamecocks caught UNC napping by successfully executing an onside kick coming out of halftime. 

It was a huge potential momentum swing after the Tar Heels went ahead 17-14 with a touchdown just before the break. But instead of allowing South Carolina to cash in on the field position and regain the momentum, the defense got the ball right back by holding the Gamecocks on 4 straight plays.

Then twice in the 4th quarter after Maye interceptions gave South Carolina opportunities to cut into its 14-point deficit, situations that might have led to a late collapse in the past, these Tar Heels made a statement by coming up big again and turning the Gamecocks over on downs both times.

“They’re playing with a lot more consistency and therefore much more confidence,” Brown said of his defense. “They didn’t get their heads down. They didn’t pull the old ‘poor me’ like they did at App State last year in the 4th quarter (when they allowed 40 points in the period). This should really build on that confidence.”

It’s a confidence that comes with familiarity.

What might have been foreign in Chizik’s 1st season back in Chapel Hill following a 5-year hiatus is now familiar.

Instead of reacting, the defense is now attacking.

And if they can keep it up, the players on that side of the ball might just win their argument after all by rewriting a narrative that has been haunting them for the past 8 months.