Louisville (2-3) entered Saturday's game as a 13.5-point underdog and it's best hope to pull out a victory was to take the air out of the ball and force North Carolina (5-1) to make mistakes on the offensive side of the ball. For 30 minutes, that approach worked to perfection. The Cardinals chewed up 22:08 of the first half clock and entered UNC territory four times, but place kicker Chris Philpott missed kicks of 40 and 36 yards wide left as both teams failed to score before halftime.
After a three-and-out to open the third quarter, UNC found some rhythm as Bryn Renner (12-of-18 passing, 178 yards, TD) directed his offense on a eight-play, 53-yard drive that resulted in a Gio Bernard three-yard touchdown run. The Tar Heels extended their lead to 14-0 when Renner found Dwight Jones (4 catches, 91 yards, TD) for a 43-yard touchdown pass play with a little over 12 minutes to play.
Louisville ended UNC's hopes of its first shutout since 1999 when Teddy Bridgewater (19-of-30 passing, 173 yards, TD, INT) connected with Dominique Brown from 18 yards out with 42 seconds left in regulation.
Bernard (109 yards, TD) delivered his fourth-straight 100-yard rushing game to become the first Tar Heel to accomplish that feat since Ethan Horton did it in five straight games in 1984. He is the only freshman in school history to rush for 100 yards in four straight games.
UNC's defense trotted out its fifth starting lineup in six games as linebackers Kevin Reddick and Ebele Okakpu and safety Jonathan Smith sat out due to ankle injuries.
Louisville outgained North Carolina, 273-264. The turnover battle was even at 1-1.
INSIDE THE GAME
Effective Halftime Adjustments
Let's be honest -- the first 30 minutes could have possibly been the ugliest half of football for North Carolina in at least five years.
With 5:06 remaining before halftime, the Tar Heels had run 11 offensive plays and held the ball for a total of four minutes and 48 seconds. By the time halftime arrived, UNC had totaled 62 yards and two first downs on 18 plays.
North Carolina had the ball for one possession in the first quarter and three more in the second, which prevented the Tar Heels from establishing any kind of offensive rhythm. Bernard touched the ball just eight times on those four drives.
"Any time you're playing a good defense, you've got to find out what they're weak at and if you can back them up," Withers said.
Louisville's offense entered the game doing its best impression of a dumpster fire, but the Cardinals chewed up 22:08 of clock and churned out 188 yards and 13 first downs. Charlie Strong's team had averaged 60 offensive plays over its last two games, but ran 41 in the first half alone.
North Carolina needed to make critical adjustments at halftime to correct problems on both sides of the ball, and the coaching staff clearly made the right changes. UNC scored 14 points, notched nine first downs and gained 202 yards on 43 plays in the second half, while also winning the time of possession battle, 18:24-to-11:36. Louisville gained five of its six first downs and 61 of its 85 yards in the second half in the final 2:35.
"People talk about through the early part of the season us starting fast, but not doing well in the second half, I think we reversed that today," Withers said. "We worked on a bunch of things at halftime."
Louisville Miscues = UNC Touchdowns
North Carolina had run 21 plays for 71 yards when Louisville punted the ball back with 11:24 to play in the third quarter. Senorise Perry made a costly mistake in punt coverage, drawing a 15-yard kick catching interference flag that gave UNC the ball on its 47-yard-line, representing its best field position of the day.
Seven plays later, the Tar Heels trotted its field goal unit out to attempt a 23-yarder from the six-yard-line on 4th-and-2 -- or so Louisville thought. The Cardinals bit on a snap down and gift-wrapped a 1st-and-goal inside the five that Bernard capitalized on one play later.
Withers told reporters after the game that Pittsburgh called a similar play against UNC in the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl. North Carolina worked on it during the preseason and planned to use the call during the season to catch undisciplined defenders that don't watch the ball off guard.
When asked if he was convinced the play was going to work, Withers responded,
Two series later, Renner underthrew Jones in one-on-one coverage down the right sideline, but cornerback Terell Floyd had his back to the ball and the Tar Heel senior was able to stop and turn to catch the ball at the 13-yard-line. As safety Shenard Holton joined the duo at the 10-yard-line, Jones kept active as both defenders tried to bring him down from his upper body.
He eventually broke free and walked into the end zone for his seventh touchdown of the season.
"I was just trying to keep my legs moving," Jones said. "I wasn't really expecting to spin out of it. I thought somebody was eventually going to grab my ankles, but I guess they were just trying to strip it and I was fortunate to spin out of it and take it to the end zone."
Third Down Deficiencies
North Carolina has yet to win the time of possession battle in six games this season, and the primary reason is due to the Tar Heels' struggles on third down, both offensively and defensively.
Prior to Saturday's kickoff, UNC ranked 63rd nationally in third down conversion offense (42 percent, 21-of-50) and 67th in third down conversion defense (40.2 percent, 29-of-72). But both sets of numbers were even worse in the three games leading up to Louisville as the Tar Heels converted 35.5 percent (11-of-21) of their third downs and allowed a 50.0 percent success rate (21-of-42).
The Louisville game proved to be more of the same as the Cardinals won the time of possession battle, 33:44-to-26:16, and converted 7-of-15 third-down attempts. UNC converted 5-of-13 opportunities on third down.