In the battle of coaches’ halftime speeches Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium, N.C. State’s Chuck Amato won.
After an incredible recovery by North Carolina to trim a 17-point deficit to just a field goal at halftime, the Wolfpack stormed out of the locker room and struck back quickly. Philip Rivers, who would later surpass Georgia Tech’s Joe Hamilton’s Atlantic Coast Conference career total offense record, hit Jerricho Cotchery on an 80-yard fly pattern, as the Wolfpack quickly throttled the Tar Heels en route to a 47-34 victory.
“It’s very difficult when they hit you for a big touchdown pass on the first play of the second half,” UNC head coach John Bunting said. “We played against a great quarterback. I’m glad I don’t have to see him again.”
Two fourth quarter touchdown receptions by true freshmen Jesse Holley and Adarius Bowman made the final score appear tighter than the game actually was.
“We have to learn to kill a fly with an axe,” Amato said. “It’s great to beat a rival in our home stadium; hopefully it won’t take us 12 years to do it again.”
Rivers feasted on the porous Tar Heels’ defense all day long, finishing with 423 yards on 23-of-30 passing. He fell just 10 yards short of topping his single-game career high he set at Wake Forest earlier this year. He also rushed for 44 yards and two touchdowns.
Cotchery was Rivers’ favorite of eight different receiving options, catching nine passes for 217 yards.
Despite ringing up 550 yards of total offense and setting a school record with 469 passing yards, North Carolina (0-4, 0-2 ACC) is off to its worst start since losing six games to begin the 1988 season.
“We can’t play defense; all we can do is focus on offense,” said Darian Durant, who threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns. “We expect a good team like State to put points on the board, so it’s our job to stay with them.”
Following Cotchery’s touchdown and a three-and-out on Carolina’s next possession, Rivers found tight end T.J. Williams for 40 yards to again place the Wolfpack deep in UNC territory. Two plays later, Josh Brown scored from seven yards out for his second rushing touchdown of the game.
For the second time in the game, the Tar Heels were on the verge of getting blown out, trailing 37-21 with 10:08 to play in the third quarter. And this time, they were all out of miracles.
“They’re confusing,” defensive tackle Chase Page said. “They hit us with some big plays and we didn’t do a good job of stopping their momentum.”
Carolina took the next possession and drove 34 yards before a Durant fumble put the N.C. State offensive juggernaut back on the field.
Nine plays later, Rivers scored his second rushing touchdown of the day; this time from 14 yards out, dragging Lionell Green and running over Dexter Reid at the goal line.
The Wolfpack led 44-21, and the rout was on.
“People always talk about a silver lining,” Bunting said. “We kept playing to win. We’re extremely disappointed with the loss, but our kids played very hard.”
Only in rare cases does a penalty help the team guilty of the infraction. Trailing 21-6 in the first half and following the Wolfpack’s first punt of the afternoon, Durant tried to find Holley over the middle, but was intercepted. However the Tar Heels were whistled for delay of game and retained possession. Jacque Lewis then took a screen pass 64 yards for Carolina’s first touchdown to help close the gap to 21-13 midway through the second quarter.
Considering how State (3-2, 1-1 ACC) had blitzkrieged UNC in every facet of the game throughout the first quarter, the turnabout was a refreshing surprise, however short-lived.
It appeared the Tar Heels’ defense would hold on the Wolfpack’s ensuing possession, when it had Rivers trapped on third down in his own backfield. But at the last second, the savvy senior quarterback got the ball away to Williams, who broke away for a first down and then some. After that it was more of the same, as Rivers methodically picked the Tar Heels apart to set up a 1st and goal at the 1-yard line.
But in one of few Carolina defensive positives on the day, the UNC held on two Brown rushes, then Isaac Mooring sacked Rivers on third down to force the Wolfpack to settle for a field goal. The Tar Heels were hanging on, down 24-13 with 2:31 to play in the half.
Another sign that things might be beginning to go the Tar Heels way occurred on a 3rd and 1 from the UNC 37. Durant tried to sneak for first down yardage, but was stopped short. However, on the tackle, the ball came loose and Lewis recovered the fumble eight yards ahead for a first down to keep the drive alive.
“I was actually trying to put the ball forward for the first down,” Durant said. “It was just great awareness on Jacque’s part.”
After moving down to the Wolfpack 34-yard line, Durant then threw over the middle to Jawarski Pollock, who was run out of bounds at the 1. On the next play, Derrele Mitchell caught a touchdown pass to make it 24-19 with seven seconds left to go before intermission. The Tar Heels converted a two-point conversion on a shuffle pass to Willie Parker. Ironically, it was the same play call that failed two weeks earlier against Syracuse with the game on the line.
Carolina managed to cover the spread on a 74-yard touchdown pass from Matt Baker to Bowman, but time ran out as the Tar Heels were driving.
“We never quit, as you could see in the fourth quarter,” Durant said. “We never lost our fight and because of that we’re going to win some games.”
Pollock had 134 receiving yards and added to his league-leading total with 11 catches.
“I get open a lot,” Pollock said. “I squeeze through openings that bigger receivers can’t, and Darian finds me.”