North Carolina earned its first victory of the season and second consecutive win over the Scarlet Knights (2-1) to move to 1-2 in ’10. Rutgers shot out to a 10-0 lead in the opening 13 minutes behind a San San Te 32-yard field goal and Mohamed Sanu’s 10-yard touchdown run. Linebacker Bruce Carter reinvigorated a listless Tar Heel squad with a 55-yard interception return that set up Johnny White’s one-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
Sanu (15 carries for 50 yards, TD; 9 catches for 74 yards; 1-of-1 passing for seven yards) carried the Rutgers offense, but UNC rallied to win from a halftime deficit (10-7) for the first time since at Connecticut last September. T.J. Yates (22-of-30 passing, 204 yards, TD, INT) found tight end Ryan Taylor for a 5-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give the Tar Heels the lead for good, and Te (39-yarder) and Casey Barth (25-yarder) exchanged field goals in the final 17 minutes.
Yates’s streak of 117 passes without an interception came to end late in the third when a pass went through Jhay Boyd’s hands and into safety Khaseem Greene’s mitts.
Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage completed 16 of his 29 passes for 150 yards and two interceptions, but head coach Greg Schiano’s offense could only muster 98 yards after intermission.
North Carolina outgained Rutgers, 295 to 244, but the Scarlet Knights won the turnover battle, 3-2.
INSIDE THE GAME
The defensive box score tells you everything you need to know about the value of the remaining few veterans on this decimated Tar Heel defense. Senior linebacker Quan Sturdivant led the team with 12 tackles and added 3.0 tackles for loss and a sack, while junior defensive linemen Quinton Coples (9 tkl, 3 sacks, 4 tfl) and Tydreke Powell (7 tkl, 0.5 sacks, 0.5 tfl) only got better as the game went along.
And then there’s senior linebacker Bruce Carter, known almost as well for his freakish weight room antics as he is for his ridiculous on-field accomplishments. The man that once blocked four punts in a row as a sophomore added the sixth blocked punt – and seventh blocked kick – of his career early in the fourth quarter, setting up Barth’s lone field goal that solidified the final score.
“I just got a good break on the ball,” Carter told reporters following the game.
But Carter also provided the most significant momentum swing of the contest early in the second quarter. With Rutgers already holding a 10-0 lead, the Scarlet Knights were facing a 3rd-and-forever at UNC’s 29-yard-line. But Savage got greedy when all he needed was a small chunk of yards to set up a field goal opportunity, throwing into coverage. Carter took advantage of the miscue, intercepting the pass and high-tailing it 55 yards down the field, reminiscent of his 66-yard interception return for touchdown in this very stadium two years ago.
North Carolina’s offense took over on Rutgers’s 28-yard-line, and scored its first touchdown five plays later.
“There’s no substitute – I don’t care anyway you say it – there’s no substitute for playmakers,” Davis said.
While the Tar Heels are missing six key starters on defense, there's still enough talent on that side of the ball to make a significant difference for this program.
A Questionable Play Call
It appeared as though junior safety Matt Merletti’s first career interception six yards from the goal line with less than three minutes to play would allow North Carolina to escape New Jersey with a critical victory.
Sure, the Tar Heels were pinned on their own seven-yard-line and Rutgers had three timeouts in its back pocket, but Shaun Draughn (8 carries, 55 yards) churned out eight yards on two downs, setting up a 3rd-and-2 on the 15. Two yards on third down would allow North Carolina to assume the victory formation for the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation.
But offensive coordinator John Shoop called a reverse to Jhay Boyd, sending the sophomore wide receiver nearly 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage running to the left side of the field. The Scarlet Knights were ready for the call, sending two defenders after Boyd and ultimately tracking him down for a seven-yard loss.
UNC was left with a 4th-and-9 and red-shirt freshman C.J. Feagles was forced to kick from his own end zone against a special teams unit that had already blocked four punts on the season. Rutgers return man Mason Robinson waved for a fair catch at the Carolina 39-yard-line, and an illegal shift penalty gave the Scarlet Knights a first down on the 34.
But despite leaning heavy on the defense to secure the victory, there was no second-guessing the play call after the game.
“Coach Shoop dialed it up and everybody was with it,” Yates said. “Everybody agreed on it. It just happened to be that they called the perfect defense – they brought two off the backside. It was the perfect call for that play. We weren’t upset with the call because everybody agreed with it. They were packing the middle so hard. Putting a reverse on them might have put the game out [of reach], but everybody was fine with it.”
Rumbling, Bumbling, Fumbling
Here’s a statistic you don’t see everyday – Yates has thrown just one interception this season, but yet the Tar Heels have lost the turnover battle in two of their three games and own an even (8:8) turnover ratio. North Carolina has recovered four more of its own fumbles.
Making matters worse is that the fumble-itis has displayed impeccable timing, beginning with White’s fumble against LSU 20 seconds into the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Nearly 57 minutes later, Yates fumbled on a 4th-and-4 in LSU territory as UNC failed to capitalize on a successful onsides kick.
Last week against Georgia Tech, Yates was credited with a fumble after UNC regained the ball with a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Two possessions later, Zack Pianalto fumbled near midfield as the Tar Heels trailed 27-24.
On Saturday, that lethal pigskin disease struck again early as Ryan Taylor fumbled on his own 39-yard-line to set up Sanu’s 10-yard touchdown run. And then with North Carolina driving deep into Rutgers territory, Jhay Boyd had the ball stripped on the 23-yard-line with 56 seconds left in the first half.
“Those fumbles and some of those turnovers… They kill us,” Yates said.
Taylor had the ball knocked out at the goal line midway through the third quarter, accelerating the heart rate of the collective Tar Heel fan base for several minutes before the replay booth ruled the play a touchdown to give UNC a lead it would never relinquish.
“It was a big pile,” Taylor said. “I was just falling backward and trying to get it in. Guys were swiping at it. Obviously, ball security is going to be an emphasis for me this week.”