North Carolina (4-1) shot out to a 21-0 lead before late arrivals had found their seats at sold out Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. UNC quarterback Bryn Renner (13-of-20 passing, 230 yards, 4 TD) capitalized on two early turnovers by connecting with Jhay Boyd from 11 yards out for a touchdown and then hitting a 75-yard home run strike to Erik Highsmith four-and-a-half minutes later.
Gio Bernard (24 carries, 146 yards, TD) added a 10-yard touchdown run two minutes into the second quarter before Mike Barbour drilled a 35-yard field goal to cut the Tar Heels' lead to 21-3. Renner struck agains on UNC's next possession with a 47-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Jones (6 catches, 93 yards, 2 TD) to give the boys in blue a 28-3 halftime lead.
North Carolina's 25-point halftime lead was the largest for the Tar Heels since a 42-7 lead over Georgia Southern in '09.
East Carolina (1-3) struck first in the second half when quarterback Dominique Davis (41-of-58 passing, 417 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) found Lance Lewis (10 catches, 166 yards, TD) for a 23-yard touchdown pass with 5:20 remaining in the third quarter. Barbour tacked on a 25-yarder before North Carolina chewed up over eight minutes of clock on a lengthy drive that ended with Jones pulling down a highlight reel catch in the left corner of the end zone from four yards out.
Renner's four touchdown passes are the most in a game since Darian Durant accomplished that feat against Syracuse in '03.
Pirates wide receiver Danny Webster finalized the scoring with a four-yard touchdown catch from Davis with 2:49 left on the clock.
North Carolina was outgained by ECU, 490-456, but the Tar Heels won the turnover battle, 4-0. UNC scored touchdowns on three of its four red zone opportunities and has now scored 15 touchdowns on 18 trips inside the 20 this season.
INSIDE THE GAME
Plundering the Booty
East Carolina entered Saturday's game ranked 110th nationally in turnover margin (minus-1.33) and led the nation with an average of 4.3 turnovers lost per game.
North Carolina forced turnovers on the Pirates' first three possessions -- two fumbles and an interception -- which saddled ECU with five straight turnovers over its last two games, not counting a kneel down to complete the win over UAB last week. The Tar Heels have committed plenty of turnovers of their own this season (minus-1.00 TO margin, 100th nationally), so it was critical to win that battle in a boisterous environment.
"You have to have those when you play this kind of offense," UNC head coach Everett Withers told reporters during his postgame press conference. "The way to beat this team is to take the ball away from them. We've got a saying in our building, 'The ball's the issue.' And if you can get the ball, they can't score."
Making East Carolina's opening trio of turnovers even more disastrous was the location of the miscues.
With the Pirates driving on their opening possessions, Webster caught a pass for a first down at UNC's 18-yard-line, but cornerback Tre Boston stripped the ball and recovered the fumble. ECU was backed up inside its own 10-yard-line on the next possession and Davis had his second down pass intercepted by UNC rookie nickel back Tim Scott, setting up Boyd's touchdown.
On the Pirates' next possession, defensive tackle Tydreke Powell knocked the ball out of Reggie Bullock's hands and Kevin Reddick recovered the fumble at UNC's 19-yard-line.
A Drive of Beauty
After looking down and out through the first 30 minutes of play, East Carolina slowly built some momentum in the third quarter with 10 straight points to cut its deficit to 28-13. The crowd, for the first time since the opening minutes of the game, found some energy and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium started to come alive again.
North Carolina had totaled just 32 yards and two first downs on its first two drives of the second half, so a sustained drive was critical in stemming ECU's rally.
What the Tar Heel offense delivered was a crowd-deflating 14-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that soaked up 8:35 off the clock. UNC ran the ball nine times for 15 yards, passed five plays for 50 yards and took advantage of a penalty for another first down.
"That was huge," Renner said. "The first two drives we stalled a little bit; we weren't happy. We really just needed a boost. Our offensive line took over that whole drive. Just the way we ran the ball and ran the play-action off of it was huge. It all starts up front. We had a great drive and Dwight made a great catch to end it."
While UNC didn't churn out many yards on the ground as ECU crowded the line of scrimmage, the plan worked in setting up passing plays and milking the clock.
"That's our identity," Withers said. "We talked about it at halftime. We didn't do as good of a job as we needed to, but we wanted to take the ball and take the air out of it and just run it and run it and run it and throw it when we felt like we had shots."
Two big plays on the drive stand out. With UNC facing a 4th and 1 at ECU's 48-yard-line, Renner executed play-action perfectly to draw East Carolina's linebackers close to the line of scrimmage before throwing over their heads to Nelson Hurst for 24 yards on a crossing pattern.
And on 3rd and 6 in the red zone, Renner was nearly sacked in the backfield for a loss before escaping and throwing the ball out of the back of the end zone, but not before a Pirate defender was called for roughing the passer. That penalty set up Jones's four-yard touchdown grab.
By the time the Pirates got the ball back, they were down 35-13 with less than seven minutes to play.
Passing a Critical Road Test
The parking lots surrounding Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium were packed by 2pm, a full six hours before game time. Once the sun dropped below the horizon, the slow-building excitement manifested itself into a rowdy crowd that was just waiting for an opportunity to explode.
An early Pirate score, a bad decision by Renner in throwing the ball or another UNC turnover would have served as the required accelerant for a fan base desperate for a signature win this season. But the Tar Heels refused to provide that gasoline to the Pirate faithful; instead they methodically killed that raucous spirit before the game was an hour old.
While there was no question entering the game that North Carolina was the more talented team, miscues had to be avoided and opportunities had to be created to build the necessary buffer to prevent a backyard dogfight.
The Tar Heels excelled in all of the above.
"It's a huge boost," Renner said. "Just the way we played last week against Georgia Tech, we weren't happy. We wanted to come out here and give it our best effort, and I think we did that for four quarters and that's huge."
Equally as important is the fact that none of the Tar Heels seemed to get too high after this victory. And when talking to their head coach, it was obvious why.
When Withers was asked about the magnitude of the win, he replied, "Any time you're 4-1, it's fun. I just want to get on the bus and go."