With former head coach Butch Davis watching from the new Blue Zone edition of Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels outmanned their FCS opponents in every phase of the game.
UNC totaled 461 total yards of offense in a balanced effort that delivered 184 rushing yards and 277 passing yards. Renner connected with Dwight Jones (9 catches, 116 yards, 2 TD) for a 34-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring less than four minutes into the game. Giovani Bernard (9 carries, 64 yards, 2 TD) scored from 12 yards out on his second career run and Ryan Houston (16 carries, 59 yards, TD) ran off the left side for a one-yard score on UNC’s next possession.
James Madison got on the board with 2:37 remaining before halftime when Justin Thorpe found Daniel Brown on a post route for a 41-yard touchdown strike. Bernard closed out the first half with a 14-yard run between the tackles to give UNC a 28-7 lead.
After a Cameron Starke 31-yard field goal 10 minutes into the third quarter, Renner finalized the scoring with a one-yard touchdown run and another strike to Jones – this one from 21 yards out.
North Carolina held the Dukes to 211 total yards. James Madison’s run-oriented offense was held to 59 yards on 39 carries, good for a 1.5-yards-per-carry average.
INSIDE THE GAME
Take a glance at Renner’s stat line one more time – 22-of-23 passing, 277 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and one rushing touchdown.
To put those numbers in context, consider that Renner’s pass completion percentage of .957 is the second-best in NCAA history for a player with 20-to-29 attempts. That percentage is the highest in ACC single-game history for a passer with at least 20 attempts. Renner topped Scott Stankavage’s 1983 school record of .810 in a game against William & Mary.
His 14 straight completions to close the game ties the UNC record held by Kevin Anthony (’85 vs. Wake Forest) and Jason Stanicek (’92 vs. N.C. State). Thanks to Renner, North Carolina set the ACC team record for pass completion percentage in a game with at least 15 attempts.
Oh, and Saturday marked Renner’s first start at the collegiate level. But just as a savvy veteran would do, the West Springfield, Va. product deflected praise to his teammates during his postgame interview.
“My receivers just did a great job,” Renner said. “My receiving corps is one of the best in the country – I really believe that. Dwight proved that and so did Erik Highsmith. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the tight ends. We worked really hard over the summer to build a rapport and I’ve got 100 percent confidence that they’re going to catch it every time I throw it.”
Renner has developed a reputation as a gunslinger during his time in Chapel Hill, but he consistently made solid decisions on Saturday, taking what James Madison gave him and utilizing his check downs on various occasions.
Renner did force one ball into the triple coverage that Jones outfought his defenders for, but the quarterback’s lone incomplete pass – a second-quarter interception – had too much air under it and his senior receiver was forced to come back to the ball and play defense.
“Bryn – he’s like a baby Brett Favre,” Jones said. “He’s got a lot of confidence in his arms. He can get the ball places that a lot of quarterbacks can’t get. With an arm like that, sometimes he’s going to take chances, but he was just unfortunate on that one.”
One out of 23 isn’t so bad.
Avoiding the Secondary?
If there was a legitimate concern troubling the North Carolina coaching staff heading into the season opener, it was an inexperienced secondary missing both starting cornerbacks. When taking into account UNC’s freakish front seven, it only made sense for James Madison to test the Tar Heel secondary early and often.
Except that didn’t happen. The Dukes attempted three passes in the first 27 minutes of the game – one thrown wide left into the benches and the other two completions to tight ends on underneath routes. It wasn’t until UNC led 21-0 that Justin Thorpe (11-of-15, 152 yards, TD) tested the Tar Heels deep and he succeeded with the 41-yard strike to Brown with 2:37 remaining before halftime.
Thorpe connected with Renard Robinson down the right sideline two minutes for a 47-yard pass play as Todd Harrelson tripped in coverage, but those were two of only a handful of throws down the field.
Defensive lineman Quinton Coples told reporters that he wasn’t surprised that James Madison elected not to test UNC’s secondary.
“We’ve still got athletes and they still have to respect that,” Coples said. “Regardless of how young we are, we’ve still got athletes and we still can make plays.”
That type of baffling play calling might put certain offensive coordinators in hot water with their bosses. That won’t be the case this time, however, as Dukes head coach Mickey Matthews assumed play-calling duties this season.
Offensive Line Shines
Offensive lines are notorious for being overlooked on the field of play and forgotten in the headlines, but UNC’s front five made it difficult for media members to keep them out of the news cycle on Saturday.
Renner’s jersey was practically spotless during postgame interviews. UNC’s signal caller had plenty of time to go through his reads as the Dukes failed to register a sack and posted only one quarterback hurry.
Houston, Bernard and A.J. Blue (5 carries, 38 yards) benefitted out of the backfield, netting 158 yards against a loss of seven, thanks to gaping holes in James Madison’s front seven. UNC had 12 carries of six yards or more.
“This O-line is big and strong,” Houston said. “I love my O-line because every time Gio and me get the ball, we feel like something is there. Always. They cover up the guys easy, if a blitz comes through, they’re smart enough to call the right call for us to get back to the blitz. It’s just an overall smarter [and] stronger line.”
North Carolina averaged 3.7 yards per rush in 2010, which represents it’s best showing since churning out 4.9 yards per carry back in ’04. The Tar Heels averaged 5.3 yards per carry and an even more impressive 7.9 yards per play on Saturday.