East Carolina (2-2) strolled into Kenan Stadium boasting the nation's ninth-highest scoring offense, but it was the Tar Heels (2-2) that scored the most points in this rivalry since Kelvin Bryant's six touchdowns helped UNC blow out the Pirates 56-0 in 1981.
ECU quarterback Dominique Davis (33-of-51 passing, 244 yards, TD, 3 INT) connected with Lance Lewis for a 13-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring before T.J. Yates (18-of-26 passing, 181 yards, 2 TD) knotted the score with a 25-yard strike to Jhay Boyd in the first quarter. Wide receiver Dwayne Harris (eight catches for 64 yards) got into the action with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Joe Womack three minutes later.
Safety Da'Norris Searcy, playing in his first game since being cleared from the ongoing NCAA investigation, announced his return with a 46-yard interception return for touchdown to tie the score at 14 heading into halftime.
The Pirates's Mike Barbour gave the Pirates a 17-14 lead with a 28-yard field goal early in the second half, but White and Draughn took over from that point forward. White gained 102 of his career-high 140 yards in the third quarter, while Draughn gained 98 of his 137 yards in the final stanza. Draughn ended up one yard shy of his career high, but offset that with a career-high three touchdowns, all in the final 16 minutes of regulation.
Saturday marked the first time since the '04 victory over William & Mary that UNC finished a game with two 100-yard rushers. It was also the first time that the Tar Heels had two players rush for 130 yards or more in a game since Leon Johnson (147) and Curtis Johnson (144) accomplished that feat against Ohio University in '93.
Junior wide receiver Dwight Jones also caught his first career touchdown pass on a 13-yard slant from Yates in the third quarter.
INSIDE THE GAME
East Carolina entered this rivalry contest with a laughable defense that ranked 114th or worse nationally in four key statistical categories – total defense (115th, 480 ypg), scoring defense (114th, 41.2 ppg), pass defense (119th, 303.3 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (119th, 180.5). Possibly even worse than those numbers is the Pirates' inability to stop their opponents on third down (57.0 percent, 117th).
But North Carolina did its part early in helping to reverse that trend on Saturday, struggling to capitalize on an ECU defense that had given up 16 offensive touchdowns through three games. Offensive coordinator John Shoop leaned on the passing game in the opening half, calling pass plays on UNC's first seven first downs that resulted in 27 total yards – 26 of which came on a Zack Pianalto reception.
As a result, North Carolina faced 3rd-and-long on six different occasions and converted just two of seven third-down opportunities in the first half, which helps explain why Searcy and the Tar Heel defense equaled the offense's scoring output (seven points).
"We never really got into any rhythm in the first half," UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference.
But after calling passes on 18 of UNC's 30 first-half plays, Shoop readjusted his philosophy in the second half. The Tar Heels ran the ball 15 times in the third quarter for 121 yards and a touchdown, compared with only six passes. That ratio was skewed even more in the final stanza as UNC ran the ball 19 times for 101 yards and two scores.
"Our game plan was to come in here and run the ball on them a whole lot," Yates said. "We knew that could be a big strength for us coming into this game. At halftime, we didn't panic. We knew we were going to stick to it and keep grinding it and they would eventually give up."
North Carolina's 263 total rushing yards eclipsed its season total heading into Saturday by five yards. That ground game delivered 16 first downs after intermission, helping UNC post its highest first down total (25) during Davis's tenure in Chapel Hill.
Secondary Up to the Challenge
East Carolina's high-powered offense – rolling up 441.3 yards and 42.3 points per game – was playing status quo through its first nine possessions, churning out 300 total yards and 17 points less than six minutes into the third quarter.
But then the Tar Heel secondary seemingly formed a vertical wall, crippling East Carolina's Air Raid offense for the remainder of the afternoon. After completing 27 of his first 37 passes for 192 yards, a touchdown and an interception, Davis only managed to connect on six of his final 14 attempts for 52 yards and two interceptions.
For a defense still missing five veteran starters, it was just a small lesson in adaptation.
"We weren't used to a fast-paced team like that, so after awhile we saw what was going on with them doing the same plays over and over, so that's how we came out in the second half and slowed down," said sophomore linebacker Kevin Reddick, who secured his first career interception in the third quarter.
Searcy's return provided a significant confidence boost to the unit, but the senior strong safety made sure his teammates realized he was only one piece of the puzzle.
"I kept encouraging them," Searcy said. "They were excited that I was back, but I was like, ‘That doesn't excuse you from not doing your job. We've still got to play as one and everybody's got to hold each other accountable.'"
And Then There Were 11…
On Thursday, Searcy became the fourth Tar Heel of the original 15 scheduled to miss the season opener against LSU to return to the field. Senior linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter were cleared less than 24 hours before the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, and senior tailback Shaun Draughn only had to sit out one game.
The Decatur, Ga. senior indicated that he was sitting in a special teams meeting when Davis shared the news with him.
"I just dropped my head into my lap and I just started crying," Searcy said. "I'm just so happy to be back playing with the guys."
But just as Draughn did several weeks ago, Searcy refused to discuss his involvement in the NCAA investigation. When asked if he thought he got a raw deal with his three-game suspension, Searcy replied, "I'd rather not talk about that."
Searcy also declined to comment when asked if it was an Honor Court ruling that was responsible for his return.