Virginia (2-1) struck first with a Robert Randolph 38-yard field goal five seconds into the second quarter, but the Tar Heels (3-0) responded with 21 unanswered points to take control. UNC quarterback Bryn Renner (15-of-21 passing, 143 yards, 2 TD) connected with Jheranie Boyd for a 18-yard touchdown pass and Ryan Houston added his 20th career rushing score – and 10th from 1-yard out – to give the Tar Heels a 14-3 lead at halftime. Renner hooked up with Dwight Jones (5 catches, 85 yards, TD) in the back-left corner of the end zone to increase UNC’s margin to 18 points less than two minutes after the break.
Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco (22-of-37 passing, 287 yards, TD, 2 INT) burnt North Carolina’s defense on a blitz six plays later, finding fullback Max Milien on a screen pass for a 41-yard touchdown. Houston tacked on a 2-yard scoring run three series later to give UNC a 28-10 lead.
The Cavaliers kept the ending in doubt as Rocco ran in for a four-yard touchdown with 5:09 remaining, but a pair of Matt Merletti interceptions on UVa’s final two series ended any thoughts of a rally.
Virginia outgained UNC, 468-401, but North Carolina won the turnover battle, 3-1.
UNC has now won consecutive games against the Cavaliers for the first time since 1981-82.
INSIDE THE GAME
Cavalier Yardage Raises Concerns
North Carolina entered the 116th meeting of the South’s Oldest Rivalry ranked third nationally in run defense (30.0 ypg) and 14th in total defense (227.5 ypg), but Virginia had surpassed those statistics by halftime (117 rushing yards, 228 total yards).
That trend continued into the second half as the Cavaliers finished with 468 yards of total offense and 170 yards on 34 carries, good for a 5.0 yards-per-carry average.
But credit the Tar Heels with limiting Virginia’s production to between the 20s for the most part. The Cavaliers entered the red zone just once, scoring the game’s final touchdown on Rocco’s four-yard scamper with 5:09 to play and UVa trailing 28-10.
“The points are, to me, what’s important,” UNC head coach Everett Withers said. “If they’re not scoring, they can’t win. I’m about having one more than they’ve got.”
The primary reason behind Virginia’s ability to find success against the UNC defense is the strong play of its offensive line. Linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive end Kareem Martin combined for a sack on the game’s third play from scrimmage, but that ended up being the Tar Heels’ lone sack of the day, settling instead for six quarterback hurries.
Virginia’s tailback trio of Kevin Parks (98 yards), Perry Jones (39) and Clifton Richardson (26) combined for 163 yards on 29 carries, and only one of those rushes resulted in a loss.
While Withers may have brushed off the large chunk of yardage during his postgame press conference, Reddick was not as easy on his defense’s performance.
“I just feel like we’ve got to stop the run,” Reddick said. “We have so much hype about our front four and linebackers, so I feel like we have to uphold to that. If guys want to talk about us, we have to let them keep talking and show them, so I feel like we’ve got work to do with that run stop.”
Those are foreboding comments considering that North Carolina’s next opponent, Georgia Tech, is averaging 427.7 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns per game.
Offense Hot & Cold
The Tar Heel offense surpassed the 400-yard plateau for the third time this season with a blend of quick-strike scores and lengthy drives, but three three-and-outs and three other series ending in four plays or less confirm that consistency will remain a focal point moving forward.
Renner blamed some of the wasted drives on the location of his passes.
“I missed Erik Highsmith with a high ball and on the first drive I made some poor decisions,” Renner said. “It all starts with me. It’s my job to keep the offense ready and I didn’t do that with the [three] three-and-outs, but I thought we had a lot of good drives and we really got the tempo going in the second quarter.”
North Carolina struck quickly in that second stanza, traveling 74 yards in five plays and needing only 1:55 off the clock. UNC also scored in the third quarter from 62 and 88 yards in 111 seconds and 132 seconds, respectively.
UNC’s ground game churned out a season-high 222 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
But what likely stood out to fans was offensive coordinator John Shoop’s willingness to open up his playbook – a large binder rumored to give the U.S. tax code a run for its money. Three different Tar Heel wide receivers ran reverses against the Cavaliers, and Shoop also faked a reverse to Reggie Wilkins and had the red-shirt freshman throw deep to Jones for a 35-yard completion.
“That’s just trust,” Boyd said. “Trust in Bryn and trust in our defense to go make a play even if we don’t convert. We like that, though. That really cheered us up throughout the game.”
Boyd drew some friendly fire for his role in A.J. Blue’s halfback pass attempt in the second quarter. Blue took the handoff and headed to the right side of the line before stepping back and firing a laser that just flew over Boyd’s outstretched hands.
“We called that one and I just told Jhay Boyd, ‘Don’t stop – you’re the fastest guy in college football,’” said Blue, who added that his longest throw is 77 yards through the air. “I said, ‘I’m going to throw it.’ And he knew I was going to throw it, but he said he slowed down a little bit and that’s how I overthrew him.”
Boyd laughed as he confirmed that he did in fact pull up.
“I didn’t see the ball at first and then at the last minute I saw it,” Boyd said. “It was just a little bit out of reach, but we’re going to try to get that play sometime again during the season, but I hate it.”
Surviving the First Quarter
The game was still scoreless after the opening 15 minutes of action, but the Tar Heels must have felt good about that situation considering the statistics suggested otherwise.
Virginia soaked up 11:52 of the clock in running 24 plays for 120 yards and converting six first downs. In contrast, North Carolina held the ball for just 3:08 and managed seven plays for 26 yards.