Yates drove his offense 56 yards in 1:39 to set up the dramatic final series of downs, and N.C. State’s Jimmie Sutton broke up a fade pattern to Hakeem Nicks in the left corner of the end zone on fourth down.
“They did a good job of just packing it in,” Yates said. “They dropped about eight – as many guys as they could down there. They did a good job playing defense. It was tight quarters, especially down there in the red zone.”
The fact that North Carolina had a chance to win this game in the final seconds is a miracle in itself – defensive back Charlie Brown returned an interception 92 yards for a touchdown, and fellow freshman cornerback Kendric Burney was not about to be outdone, returning a fourth-quarter pick 76 yards for another score. Those two plays marked the first time since 1994 (Tulane) that the Tar Heels returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
In what has become a consistent theme in road games this season, the Tar Heels fell behind 17-0 early due to costly errors and missed assignments on both sides of the ball.
The Wolfpack capitalized on a DaJuan Morgan interception of Yates’ first pass attempt of the day with a 40-yard Steven Hauschka field goal, and then third-string tailback Jamelle Eugene attacked the edges of the UNC defense for 91 yards and two scores to build the 17-0 lead with 12:13 remaining before intermission.
“The long and short of it is that we played very, very poorly in the first half,” Butch Davis said following his first game coaching in this fierce rivalry. “We almost didn’t even give ourselves a chance to even be in the ball game. We didn’t play well offensively, defensively or [on] special teams.”
Brown jumpstarted a UNC squad drowning in blunders with his interception return as N.C. State was driving in the red zone with 9:37 left in the second quarter. The play was the third-longest interception return in school history, and an ensuing three-and-out by the Wolfpack offense led to a 47-yard Connor Barth field goal that cut the deficit to 17-10.
“We always talk about at least somebody making a play,” Burney said. “Like last week, Hilee [Taylor] got that sack and turned the defense around. Charlie Brown made a great interception and took it back  yards. It was a big boost for our defense.”
N.C. State entered this rivalry contest with the worst run defense in the conference (204.3 yards per game), but the Pack manhandled the Tar Heels up front, holding their Tobacco Road neighbors to 12 total rushing yards on 20 attempts. North Carolina’s inability to create any semblance of a ground attack allowed N.C. State to pressure Yates all afternoon. The red-shirt freshman struggled in front of Carter-Finley Stadium’s hostile crowd of 57583, completing 22-of-42 passes for 241 yards with two interceptions.
Eugene ran wild over the Tar Heels on Saturday afternoon, totaling 159 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries – good for a 5.0 yards per carry average. He was also a factor in the N.C. State passing attack – if the sophomore wasn’t running counters and sweeps to the outside, he was catching swing passes from junior quarterback Daniel Evans to the tune of 33 yards on six receptions.
Evans completed 26-of-42 passes for 229 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. His lone scoring throw was a 14-yard scoring strike to quarterback-turned-tight end Marcus Stone to give the Pack a 24-10 halftime lead.
But Brown’s interception and halftime adjustments led to a strong second-half start by the UNC defense. The Tar Heels held N.C. State to 23 yards with no third-down conversions in the third quarter behind the strong play of Durell Mapp (23 tackles), giving the stagnant offense solid field position. Offensive coordinator John Shoop’s unit finally capitalized with 8:50 left before the final stanza, as Bobby executed a halfback pass perfectly to a wide open Brandon Tate for a 50-yard touchdown pass.
“I thought our players and our coaches did a good job of making some adjustments in the second half that gave us a chance to get back into the game,” Davis said. “I talked to our players at halftime – you don’t get back into the game trying to outscore the other team, because you can’t trade score for score or you’ll still end up losing. If you want to get back into the game, you’ve got to do it defensively.”
Connor Barth opened the final 15:00 with a 27-yard field goal to cut the Wolfpack lead to 24-20, and on the ensuing possession, Burney’s interception return for touchdown stymied a methodic N.C. State drive down the field to give the Heels their first lead at 27-24.
But as UNC tried to run out the game clock with 5:38 remaining, Yates was hit from behind and defensive tackle DeMario Pressley made a great interception falling to the ground on the UNC 23-yard line. Eugene would score on a one-yard touchdown run on a third-and-goal play, setting up the Tar Heels last-minute drive that went 56 yards in 13 plays.
“We did some good things executing on that last drive,” Davis said. “We moved it down the field and got four good shots from the [seven-yard line]. Of course, we wish we could get one of those chances back.”