“Probably the only fortunate thing that happened tonight was the fact that we were able to escape with a victory,” head coach Butch Davis said during his postgame press conference. “A great deal of tonight’s credit certainly has to go to McNeese State. They played very well. They played better than us in a lot of phases. Fortunately for us, the only phase they didn’t play as well in was with Brandon Tate.”
The preseason All-ACC specialist exploded past UNC’s all-purpose yards record just as easily as he juked his way through the McNeese State defenders in a game halted for nearly two hours due to inclement weather. Derrick Fenner owned the previous record with a 339-yard performance against Virginia in 1986.
“I’m just trying to go out and make plays,” said Tate, who became the first wide receiver in UNC history to rush for 100 yards in a game. “Coach [Davis] said he wants to put the ball in playmaker’s hands, so I just go out there and try to make the best out of every play.”
Tate returned Blake Bercegeay’s second punt of the evening 82 yards for UNC’s opening score, and then took an inside handoff 54 yards down the right sideline to the 3-yard line. T.J. Yates (15-of-26 passing for 221 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) connected with Brooks Foster on a slant for a 4-yard scoring strike three plays later.
Add in a 56-yard opening kickoff return, a 38-yard punt return and a 7-yard reception to Tate’s stat line for good measure, and the result is 237 all-purpose yards in the first 18 minutes of the 2008 season. The Cowboys kicked away from the Burlington, N.C. product the rest of the night, but he was still able to contribute a 57-yard touchdown reception and a number of other impressive plays
Tate finished the contest with 93 receiving yards, 106 rushing yards, 142 punt return yards and 56 kick return yards. But possibly the most interesting statistic of the evening is in the fact that this performance is only second-best all-time in the ACC. Wake Forest’s John Leach tallied 411 yards against Maryland in 1993.
Here’s the kicker, though – Leach needed 51 touches to set that record, while Tate only needed 11.
"Brandon Tate could probably have played for just about every team I’ve coached on for the last 34 years,” Davis said. “He is electrifying. He makes guys miss. You need guys like that that can change field position and change the complexion of the game."
And if there ever was a contest that North Carolina needed a game changer, it was this one. Starting running back Greg Little used words “smash” and “obliterate” when talking about McNeese State earlier this week, but through three quarters, the Cowboys were letting their actions speak for them.
Heading into the final stanza, UNC had totaled just 187 yards of offense compared to 287 for McNeese State, and trailed the time of possession battle by almost 13 minutes.
The Tar Heels finally came alive in the final quarter, slowing down the Cowboys’ potent spread offense (391 total yards) while rolling up 197 yards of their own en route to posting 384 total yards.
“We have clearly got to play better,” Davis said. “We didn¹t accomplish very much
offensively or defensively in tonight’s performance. We didn’t establish anything.”
Most importantly, the ground game that Little was expected to improve never materialized. The sophomore rushed for 40 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while backup Shaun Draughn (33 yards on 7 carries) scored his first career touchdown on a dazzling 13-yard scamper in the third quarter.
Hakeem Nicks caught six passes for 110 yards, including a 71-yarder in the fourth quarter to compliment Tate’s highlight reel.
Quan Sturdivant (11 tackles), Mark Paschal (9 tkl) and E.J. Wilson (8 tkl, 3 tfl) led the Tar Heel defense that struggled to contain the Cowboys’ Derrick Fourroux (14-of-26 for 181 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT and 43 rushing yards, 1 TD).
After North Carolina’s narrow escape against a talented Division I-AA program on Saturday night, it was apparent during the postgame interviews that the Tar Heels must improve dramatically if they hope to live up to their preseason hype.
“I told our football team a couple of weeks ago that it’s the media’s job and it’s the alumni’s job and it’s the fans’ job to deal in predictions and expectations,” Davis said. “And it’s the coaches’ job and the players’ job to deal in reality. And the reality is that you better look at yourself in the [mirror] tonight and find out what it’s going to take to play much better every single week.”