Conner Barth walked onto the field with 49 seconds remaining and the score tied at 31-31 in front of a sellout crowd of 43,000 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, preparing for an opportunity to kick the Tar Heels to victory with a 52-yarder. But a botched special teams execution left holder Ryan Baucom running for daylight, only to be tackled on the East Carolina 47-yard line.
“We purposefully orchestrated taking the fourth quarter with the wind because there was about a six-yard difference,” head coach Butch Davis said. “In pregame, [Connor] was hitting the ball 50 yards going in one direction and he was hitting it 57 yards going the other way… We just hate that he didn’t have the opportunity to kick it.”
The Pirates subsequently moved 31 yards down the field to give Ben Hartman a shot at redemption with only his second conversion of five field goal attempts on the night.
Davis indicated that this heart-breaking loss is just another step for this young Tar Heel squad in its maturation process.
“Every game is insightful for us as a team – our players and our coaches,” Davis said. “Because we find out an awful lot about ourselves. We find out about our talent level, we find out about our execution level, we find out about our coaching level. There were several things that went on during the course of the ball game that gave us a chance to win the game. By the same token, there were things that gave us a chance to lose the game.”
The first-year head coach was pleased with his young team’s ability to handle the game’s momentum shifts and emotional highs and lows.
“I will tell you that every single kid on our football team – every single time they took the field, regardless of whether we were up by ten or down by ten, it didn’t make any difference, they were going out there to compete,” Davis said.
ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney threw for a career-high 406 yards and three touchdowns on 31-of-41 passing to lead the Pirates to only the second victory in 11 tries against North Carolina.
Veteran safety Trimane Goddard and the UNC secondary never expected the kind of performance that Pinkney put on this Saturday evening.
“It did surprise us, but sometimes we had a mental lapse,” Goddard said. “A couple of guys didn’t stay at home when they were playing that spread out … and that ate us up a couple of times.”
And while UNC red-shirt freshman quarterback T.J. Yates managed 344 yards and three touchdowns through the air on 20-of-32 passing with only one interception, the relentless Pirate defense never allowed North Carolina into the red-zone. The Tar Heels’ inability to sustain drives on the ground led to a major time of possession discrepancy in East Carolina’s favor – 36:08 to 23:52.
Senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer said being on the field for an extended period of time never affected the defense.
“I feel fine,” Balmer said. “I feel like I could play two more quarters right now if I had to.”
Both teams struggled in the rushing game, with UNC netting 79 yards to ECU's 64. But the passing display led to 423 total yards for the Tar Heels, against 470 for the Pirates.
Yates started the game similar to the season opener against James Madison, connecting on a short rollout completion to Bobby Rome that went for 53 yards, only 12 yards less than his 65-yarder to Brooks Foster on his first pass last weekend.
The Tar Heels stalled in East Carolina territory, though, settling for a Connor Barth 39-yard field goal. Pinkney responded quickly, taking advantage of a North Carolina blitz on 3rd-and-16 to complete a screen pass to Chris Johnson for a 78-yard touchdown.
Brandon Tate returned his second kickoff of the game 49 yards, and Yates promptly connected with Hakeem Nicks for a 37-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-seven that put North Carolina back on top 10-7.
The Tar Heels front four were regular visitors in the Pirates offensive backfield during the first quarter, putting constant pressure on Pinkney. On the Pirates’ next 3rd –and-16, freshman defensive tackle Marvin Austin pushed an ECU double team into the junior quarterback’s lap, forcing an underneath pass to Steven Rogers who was met with a vicious hit by senior linebacker Durell Mapp.
Junior college transfer Terrence Brown continued his impressive punting display, booting a 49-yarder on his first attempt and pinning the Pirates at their own 10-yard line on his second. A quick three-and-out by the East Carolina gave the Tar Heels the ball on the Pirates’ 39-yard line following a Tate return and offensive holding penalty.
A play-action pass opened up Tate on the very next play for a 39-yard touchdown completion from Yates to open up a 17-7 lead, his second of the day and fourth touchdown toss of the season for over 28 yards.
But East Carolina would gain momentum following Tate’s early second quarter score, outgaining the Heels 158-40 the rest of the half with 137 yards coming through the air.
The Pirates attacked the inexperienced UNC secondary on their next touchdown drive, completing five passes for 53 yards on their ensuing possession, including a Pinkney 15-yard scoring strike to Davon Drew with only 1:26 remaining before halftime.
“He’s a great quarterback [and] he’s a great athlete,” Balmer said. “And that’s what athletes do – they make plays. He made a bunch of them tonight, and it hurt us.”
A Yates interception at midfield resulted in an ECU last-minute charge deep into North Carolina territory, closing with a 30-yard field goal to tie the ball game at 17-17 heading into halftime.
East Carolina won the field-position battle early in the third quarter, converting on a 38-yard touchdown drive with a 24-yard Pinkney-to-Johnson hookup.
The Yates-to-Tate connection responded quickly with a 51-yard touchdown pass play on the following series, but former Tar Heel Khalif Mitchell blocked the extra point to keep ECU in the lead at 24-23 with 7:56 remaining in the third quarter.
The Pirates would once again take advantage of a short field after a Johnson 44-yard kickoff return and a personal foul against North Carolina, marching only 31 yards for a touchdown on a four-yard Johnson run to the left corner of the end zone.
Tate did everything he could to keep his teammates in the game, returning a third quarter-ending punt 58 yards for a touchdown, and Yates completed a pass to Anthony Elzy on a two-point conversion to square the game at 31-31.
East Carolina failed to capitalize on a 63–yard kickoff by Jonathan Williams to start the fourth quarter as Ben Hartman missed on his second field goal attempt of the evening – this one from 32 yards.
The Tar Heels, in the midst of a significant momentum shift, marched back down the field to the ECU 28–yard line, where a Nicks fumble handed the ball back to the Pirates, who went 52 yards the other way and gave Hartman another shot to win the ball with a 37-yard field goal. He missed for the third time on the night, only to redeem himself on the final play of the game.
UNC returns to Kenan Stadium next Saturday for a noon kickoff against Virginia.