North Carolina (4-2, 2-1 ACC) scored 24 first-quarter points in its first five games of the season. On Saturday night, a pair of T.J. Yates-to-Dwight Jones touchdown passes sandwiched around a Casey Barth 36-yard field goal provided UNC with a 17-3 lead less than 14 minutes into the 115th meeting of the South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Barth added a 34-yard field goal midway through the second quarter and Zack Pianalto (3 catches, 54 yards, TD) added a one-yard touchdown pass from Yates (17-of-22 passing, 325 yards, 3 TD) to give the Tar Heels a 27-3 lead before Keith Payne scored on a five-yard touchdown run to cut the margin to 27-10 heading into halftime.
Barth connected on his third and final field goal – this one from 32 yards out – to start the second half and linebacker Kevin Reddick returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown only 12 seconds later to give UNC a 37-10 lead. Shaun Draughn (17 carries, 65 yards, TD) finalized the scoring with a one-yard touchdown run with 4:53 remaining in regulation. Johnny White added 57 yards on the ground.
Five different Tar Heels intercepted Virginia's three quarterbacks, totaling 95 return yards along the way. Payne was the lone bright spot for the Cavaliers, churning out 107 rushing yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
North Carolina finished with 479 total yards of offense, compared with Virginia’s 335. The Tar Heels also dominated the turnover battle, 5-1.
UNC’s 34-point margin of victory is the largest at Virginia (2-4, 0-3 ACC) since defeating the Cavaliers, 42-0, in 1958. The 34-point win is the largest margin of victory against an ACC team in a road game since a 38-3 win at Clemson in 2001 and stands as the largest margin of victory against a FBS opponent under Butch Davis.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Five-Star Performance
It took three years for Dwight Jones to finally show glimpses of his five-star talent that earned him scholarships from across the country as a Burlington (N.C.) Cummings star wide receiver in high school. The junior caught his first career touchdown pass on a 13-yard slant in the third quarter against East Carolina to pique the UNC fan base’s interest, but what Jones did on Saturday sent shockwaves around the ACC.
“Dwight Jones, without question, had his finest game as a North Carolina Tar Heel,” UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Jones finished with a career-high 198 receiving yards, including 119 in the first quarter, on a career-best seven catches. It only took 17 seconds for Jones to make his presence felt, catching a pass on a short crossing route, shedding two tacklers and floating 81 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown on the game’s opening play.
He hauled in another touchdown reception for 20 yards and nearly had a third one after a 54-yard reception ended one yard short of the end zone.
"It felt good,” Jones said. “I was in the zone from the beginning of the game, from when I first stepped on the field. There was a lot of adrenaline, and it felt good out there. I haven't felt like that since high school -- it was different. I felt like a beast out there on the field."
The previous high for a Tar Heel receiver against Virginia was Sam Aiken’s 179 yards in 2002.
A Return to Big Plays
North Carolina’s offense thrived on the big play in ’07 and the defense dined at that table in ’09, but the highlight reel has been sparse by comparison this season – until Saturday night. When both sides of the ball boast worthy options for ESPN’s Top-10 Plays list, it’s difficult for the opponent to recover. Virginia, of course, never did.
Jones’s 81-yard touchdown reception began the festivities, and Zack Pianalto caught Yates’s second pass attempt of the day for 46 yards down the left seam. Linebacker Zach Brown made sure his defense joined the fray with a 70-yard interception return that set up a Casey Barth 34-yard field goal in the second quarter.
Jones answered the defense’s strike with a 54-yard catch that fell 18 inches short of another touchdown. Erik Highsmith pulled in a tough 42-yard reception to start the third quarter, but five plays later, Reddick added another defensive play to the highlight reel with a 22-yard interception return for touchdown to give UNC a 37-10 lead.
Da’Norris Searcy added a big play of his own, albeit one lacking any yardage. Following Virginia’s biggest output of the night – a 49-yard run by Keith Payne to set up a 1st and goal at 2 – Searcy wrestled a pass away from a Cavalier receiver on the 1-yard-line to end the threat.
The mentality, it seems, is pretty straightforward. No matter what the situation, someone has to elevate their game to help this program achieve its desired result – victory.
"Somebody make a play,” Reddick said. “Somebody's got to make a play. Somebody's got to step up and make a play.”
And even with the game well in hand at 44-10 with less than three minutes to play, that mentality remained strong, as evidenced by backup safety Matt Merletti’s interception in the end zone to kill Virginia’s final scoring opportunity.
Special Teams Miscues
North Carolina’s special teams units have gradually improved with each passing week since the debacle in Atlanta against LSU, but Saturday night was a step in the wrong direction.
“We didn’t play very well, special teams-wise, in any particular phase,” Davis said.
Raynard Horne returned his first kickoffs back for 30 and 31 yards, respectively, for the Cavaliers, and Casey Barth helped out with two kickoffs that drew penalties for landing out of bounds. Horne saved his best showing for last, taking Barth’s final kickoff back 53 yards to the UNC 42-yard-line. On the day, the Cavaliers returned seven kickoffs for 170 yards, good for a 24.3-yards-per-return average.
But the troubles didn’t stop with just kickoffs. With North Carolina pinned deep in its own territory to start the fourth quarter, C.J. Feagles appeared to mishit a punt from the goal line that Virginia return man Chase Minnifield had to charge from midfield to catch at the UNC 40-yard-line.
Virginia began drives at their own 40-yard-line or better five times following kickoffs or punts against the Tar Heels.