North Carolina (2-0) struck quickly against the Scarlet Knights (1-1) as Bryn Renner (20-of-26 passing, 273 yards, TD, 3 INT) connected with Dwight Jones (6 catches, 135 yards, TD) for a 66-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline, but the mistakes started filtering in on UNC's very next series with a holding penalty deep in its own territory.
UNC committed turnovers on three straight possessions and Rutgers capitalized with a pair of San San Te field goals (35, 50). Gio Bernard (16 carries, 81 yards, 2 TD) provided the Tar Heels with some breathing room with a dazzling 60-yard touchdown scamper on a toss right. The red-shirt freshman cut back inside into traffic, but emerged unscathed after breaking three tackles and outrunning his would-be tacklers into the end zone.
Renner set up Rutgers’s next scoring opportunity with an interception in UNC territory. Chas Dodd (25-of-47 passing, 243 yards, 2 TD) found Mohamed Sanu (13 catches, 119 yards, TD) over the middle for a one-handed grab from 18 yards out.
Casey Barth tacked on a 46-yard field goal as time expired to give North Carolina a 17-12 lead at halftime, but not before UNC had fumbled four times, losing two, and tossing a pair of interceptions.
Rutgers sandwiched another Te field goal (19) and a Tim Wright five-yard touchdown reception around Bernard’s second touchdown of the day – this one from six yards out – but UNC’s defense held strong and stopped the Scarlet Knights on a fourth down play with 2:32 remaining to end any hope of a comeback.
The Tar Heels outgained Rutgers, 405-244, despite losing the turnover battle, 5-0. Those five turnovers represent the highest single-game total for UNC since committing six against Virginia Tech in ’08. North Carolina tacked on nine penalties for 94 yards for good measure.
Saturday’s victory marked the first time in 16 years that North Carolina has won a ball game when committing five turnovers. UNC has now won six consecutive nonconference games, the longest streak since ’95-’97.
INSIDE THE GAME
Smothered and Covered
As Rutgers trotted out onto the field for a first and goal at UNC’s 2-yard-line, most everyone in Kenan Stadium was expecting the Scarlet Knights to put points on the board. North Carolina’s defense, however, had different plans.
After an incompletion on first down, Rutgers tried to run the ball in on the next three downs without success. Defensive end Kareem Martin tripped up Dodd on a bootleg right just inside the 1-yard-line and linebacker Keven Reddick and tackle Tydreke Powell combined to stop De’Antwan Williams on fourth and goal.
But while that was undoubtedly the defensive highlight of the game, the Tar Heels provided plenty of other worthy material.
UNC held Rutgers to just one rushing yard, which represents the fewest yards an opponent has rushed for since Wake Forest posted negative-two yards in ’00. Four sacks accounted for minus-17 yards, but the Scarlet Knights’ tailback-by-committee netted 18 yards in 21 combined carries.
"We stopped them,” UNC head coach Everett Withers replied when asked about his defense’s performance. “They tried to run a power and we stopped them. They tried to throw the ball and we made plays on the ball, blitzed the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands and get the ball back. This game ain't real hard."
Dodd likely needed an ice bath after Saturday’s game. In addition to the sack count, the sophomore was pressured 10 times and watched as seven of his pass attempts were broken up.
Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano was blunt in his postgame comments about the heat UNC applied on his quarterback: “That's one of the premier defensive lines in the country so the sack part, I thought we got rid of the ball rather quickly.”
The Tar Heels weren’t flawless – Rutgers found success throwing the ball in the second half against UNC’s secondary, totaling 160 yards on 15 completions – but the defense was the primary reason that Saturday’s game ended in victory.
Breaking Down Renner
Observers will remember four of Renner’s passes against Rutgers more than the other 22. Unfortunately, three of those throws were completions to the other team. Renner failed to account for a safety over the top last week against James Madison in throwing his first interception, and the same thing happened on his first pick against Rutgers on a pass intended for Jhay Boyd.
His second interception was a ball forced into double coverage that was batted around before being hauled in by Wayne Warren, and his third was an overthrown ball intended for Erik Highsmith down the left sideline.
“I need to play better – 10 times better,” Renner told reporters in his postgame interview. “Me turning the ball over is unacceptable in this offense. I’m going to take that into account this week and just try to get better.”
But there’s also plenty of value to be found in Renner’s performance. He completed his first five passes to set a new school record for consecutive completions with 19, breaking Darian Durant’s record of 15 passes set in ’01.
Renner moved well in the pocket and avoided any big losses that plagued his predecessor, T.J. Yates, at times during his career. While his decision-making process needs to be fine-tuned, he’s still completing 85.7 percent of his passes (42-of-49) through two games.
Oddly enough, more of Renner’s passes have been intercepted (4) than have touched the ground (3) this season.
A Newfound Weapon at Kick Returner
North Carolina’s coaching staff has been on the lookout for a dangerous weapon at kick returner ever since Brandon Tate went down with an ACL injury against Notre Dame in October ’08. That search may be over.
True freshman T.J. Thorpe won the starting job during training camp and appeared to lock down that role against Rutgers. With 19 seconds left before halftime, the Durham, N.C. native fielded a kick at the six-yard line and found a seam down the right sideline, racing 59 yards to the Rutgers 35-yard-line. Two plays later, Barth added a field goal to give UNC a 17-12 margin at the break.
UNC’s average starting field position on the five kicks Thorpe returned was the 35-yard-line.
“We always thought T.J. had the ability to be a good kick returner,” Withers said. “It’s one of those things that when we recruited him, we thought this could be a role for this young man.”
Thorpe is averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return on eight attempts this season.
Random Fact of the Day
North Carolina’s first two opponents combined to run 17 plays inside UNC’s 10-yard-line and have 13 total points to show for those efforts.