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But it was true freshman Brandon Tate’s 96-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff that led to a quick 7-0 lead, fired up the excited and early arriving fans and set the tone for a significant non-conference victory the Tar Heels needed badly.
Tate finished with 152 combined return yards.
“Two things that hurt us were the turnovers and letting them have the kickoff return the opening play of the game,” said first-year Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “That’s ridiculous. That should never happen.”
For the first time since stringing together late regular season triumphs over Wake Forest and Duke, North Carolina (2-2, 1-1 ACC) backed up a win with another. And, for the second week in a row, the Tar Heels took an early lead despite squandering opportunities in the red zone, and then had to battle back from behind to win in the second half.
Oh yeah, and the defense brought it again this week.
The Tar Heels defense, which had to absorb a less than spectacular rushing performance from its teammates on offense, held the Utes’ confusing but effective offense scheme to a manageable 352 yards.
After cruising for 144 yards against the Wolfpack, the Carolina running game barely eked out 85 yards at 2.2 yards per clip.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels’ passing game just got better and better as the game went on.
UNC led 10-7 at the half, but Utah struck quickly by going on an 11-play, 77 yard drive, culminated in a 15-yard touchdown pass Brian Johnson to Travis LaTendresse. It was Utah’s first and only lead of the game – 14-10, less than five minutes into the second half.
The Utes (3-2, 1-1 MWC) would follow up the scoring drive with a three-and-out stop of the Tar Heels. But after moving 30 yards on five plays to the UNC 44, Cedrick Holt picked off Johnson’s pass to kill Utah’s opportunity to increase its lead.
Ironically, just like in the season opener at Georgia Tech, an apparent interception by Holt was reviewed. However, unlike the previous result, this time the play stood.
Carolina answered with two consecutive possessions that resulted in touchdowns, and put the Tar Heels up for good.
Baker connected with wide receiver Wallace Wright for a touchdown from 23 yards out. Then after a Utah punt, Baker drove the team 66 yards on six plays that ended in a 1-yard scoring plunge by Barrington Edwards.
UNC led 24-14 with 14:02 remaining.
The Utes added a 35-yard field goal, but then the Tar Heels’ defense took over.
Linebacker Larry Edwards led the Tar Heels with 12 tackles, including a UNC season-high three tackles for loss. He also forced a fumble midway through the fourth quarter.
“Some people overlook us, but we have so much talent and depth on this defense,” Edwards said. “We come out there and force turnovers and make some good plays that get us into good position. Every time I’m on the field I want to make big plays and I feel like our whole defense has that attitude.”
With its four sacks on the afternoon, UNC now has 14 in its last three games.
Cornerback Quinton Person, pulling extra duty in the Tar Heels’ frequent nickel packages, was picked on early on several Utah out patterns, but bounced back to make as many key stops down the stretch.
No.1 cornerback Jacoby Watkins, who missed a good deal of preseason practice diagnosed with vertigo, left the game in the first quarter and did not return due to an undisclosed sickness.
An exciting 43-yard hook-up from Baker to Jesse Holley with 5:11 remaining added icing on the cake.
“I caught it, made on guy miss and ran,” Holley said. “I saw paydirt and wasn't getting tackled for anything. I’ve been [waiting] a long time. We have a little joke among the wide receivers: ‘Welcome to the club - the Touchdown Club.’”
The victory enabled UNC to even its record on the season and insured it will continue to play at least a few more meaningful football games well into October – albeit against one of the toughest schedule’s in the country.
“I’m really excited about winning two football games in a row,” John Bunting said. “The kids played really, really hard. They played their hearts out for the second week in a row.”
Next Saturday the Tar Heels travel to 24th ranked Louisville, 61-10 winners over Florida Atlantic.
“Utah was an outstanding ball club, but we’re not content with just being 2-2. We’re going right back to the drawing board,” said Tommy Richardson, who recovered his second and third fumbles of the season.