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All in one afternoon, the Tar Heels’ running game blossomed out of the depths of a figurative desert and its defense came of age demonstrating its best run-stoppage performance in nearly half a decade.
“I knew that we would bounce back and that this group would keep on fighting,” John Bunting said. “We are doing a lot of the right things on both sides of the ball.”
Led by Barrington Edwards’ collegiate career-high of 129 yards, the Tar Heels rushing attack cracked its rusty cage and struck early and often for a cumulative 144 yards total on the day – easily eclipsing its previous total of 118 combined its first two games.
“He’s got a lot of skill running the football,” Bunting said of Edwards. “We just have to find ways to get him the football.”
With the win, UNC improved to 1-2 overall and 1-1 in the ACC.
And once again, the man with the toughest chin among NCAA Division I coaches, Bunting picked his team and himself up off of the proverbial mat to engineer yet another improbable victory seemingly against all odds.
“I take full responsibility for this game,” N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said. “I’m embarrassed for our fans. This team is too good to stay down too long though.”
For N.C. State (1-2, 0-2), which entered the game with a 158.0 rushing yards per game average…well, the Carolina defensive front held Toney Baker, Derrell Blackmon and Co. to a meager 13 yards on the ground.
Not since yielding minus-two yards to Wake Forest in 2000 has the UNC run defense been so stingy.
And, the Carolina defense added six sacks to boot.
“We have experience and we have depth now,” said senior Tommy Davis. “We can roll our front four like any other team. We have a fresh set of guys in there every time. We have linebackers with experience, and we have corners who know their jobs.”
“That was really an incredible effort by the guys up front,” Bunting added. “Our defensive front is the best they’ve been since 2001, if we get them to play that way game in game out they will be great.”
But while the Tar Heels were able to establish the run early, as well as benefit from an 11-yard Quinton Person punt return for a touchdown to give them an early 7-0 lead, it was Matt Baker who rebounded from a shaky 1-of-8 passing performance in the first half to take over the game down the stretch.
The fifth-year senior connected on all but three pass attempts the rest of the way, and while battling back from a 10-point deficit in the third quarter. Baker finished with 177 yards and two touchdowns, including a 10-yard scoring connection to tight end Jon Hamlett as the Tar Heels retook the lead for good at 28-24.
“Baker can make things happen for us when we get him to hook up with the wide receivers,” Bunting said. “The receivers did a good job catching the ball and making big plays for us today to keep us moving the football.”
Receivers’ Jarwarski Pollock (five catches, 44 yards, TD), Mike Mason (3-61), Jesse Holley (1-16), Derrele Mitchell (1-13) and Hamlett (1-10, TD) all got a piece of the action.
By the time the clock turned to the fourth quarter and the overcast skies continued to reverberate the audible sounds of a disgruntled spectator contingent, Carolina had complete control of the game.
Connor Barth, who missed from 38 and 41 yards earlier, hammered one nail in State’s coffin with a 24-yard field goal that gave UNC its final margin of victory with 5:53 showing on the game clock.
The Wolfpack managed two more possessions, but was reduced to one big Jay Davis desperation heave to try and force overtime. A sack by Larry Edwards and a forced hurry by Tommy Davis were instrumental in two more fourth quarter stops by the Carolina defense.
State jumped on the Tar Heels with lightning quickness to start the second half, buoyed by a 64-yard kickoff return by Blackman that led to a 2-yard touchdown run by Baker and a 39-yard scoring strike from Davis to tight end T.J. Williams minutes later. All of a sudden the Wolfpack had its first lead of the game and then some up 24-14 with 10:09 left in the third quarter.
Davis, who was far more effective in the first half than in the second, finished with 257 yards passing and a touchdown.