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After a lackluster victory over FCS opponent McNeese State twelve days ago, the UNC coaching staff put its players through a grinding week of practice leading up to this game, and that hard work paid dividends in front of millions of viewers.
North Carolina (2-0) trailed Rutgers 3-0 heading into the second quarter, but that's when the fireworks started. Jay Wooten connected on a 43-yard field goal before T.J. Yates (14-of-22 for 221 yards and three touchdowns) connected with a wide open Hakeem Nicks in the right corner of the end zone to build a 10-3 lead. On UNC's next possession, Yates countered another San San Te field goal (34, 32) with a 69-yard scoring bomb to Brandon Tate to take a 17-6 margin into halftime.
The Burlington, N.C. senior totaled 219 all-purpose yards on the night, giving him 616 for the season through two games. After eclipsing the 100-yard rushing mark in the season opener, Tate set another personal record with 138 receiving yards on four catches.
The second half started ominously for the Scarlet Knights when Wooten's short kickoff bounced past the returners before being recovered at the one-yard line. North Carolina capitalized with a three-and-out and a short field with another Tate score – this time a 12-yard reverse – to jump out to 24-6.
The Tar Heel defense added highlights of its own, tacking on a Bruce Carter 66-yard return for touchdown to put the game out of reach at 31-6 with 9:55 remaining in the third quarter.
Then came an odd and unusual sight for a North Carolina road game – the home team fans filed out of Rutgers Stadium en masse with more than 20 minutes left to play.
The Tar Heels broke a 20-game losing streak outside of the cozy confines of North Carolina dating back to 2002. This 32-point victory provided the largest road margin since a 38-3 win over Clemson in 2001.
"It feels like a long time coming," senior linebacker Mark Paschal said. "It's something that we've been looking for since I've been here, winning outside of the state of North Carolina… I'm excited about the plane ride, because I haven't been on a plane [ride home] where it's been fun since I've been here."
North Carolina also has its first 2-0 start since defeating Tulsa and Wake Forest to open the 2000 season. And for this group of Tar Heels, there was no better way to erase the demons of the past decade than to host a coming out party on ESPN.
"We knew it was a big game on national television," Yates said. "No other teams in the country are playing tonight, so we knew everybody would be watching us. We kept that in mind and tried to stay as focused as possible throughout the game."
Rutgers (0-2) moved the ball at will against Fresno State on Labor Day, but was unable to take advantage of its scoring abilities. Those issues continued against North Carolina, as the Scarlet Knights racked up 383 total yards, but managed just two field goals before Mike Teel (25-of-40 for 243 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT) connected with Kevin Brock for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cut their deficit to 38-12 in the fourth quarter.
North Carolina did not allow Rutgers to convert on any of its nine third-down tries, and four different Tar Heels (Charles Brown, Quan Sturdivant, Kendric Burney and Carter) intercepted passes while combining for 158 return yards. Brown led UNC with 10 tackles, with Paschal and Sturdivant both notching seven tackles.
"They're a very well-coached team, but they made some mistakes, and we were fortunate to capitalize on those mistakes," Davis said.
The heavily-scrutinized UNC running back corps combined for 157 yards and a touchdown on 38 carries, led by Greg Little's 71 yards on 18 rushes. North Carolina totaled 378 offensive yards for the game.
Nicks (6 catches for 63 yards, 2 TD) added a second-half touchdown on an 11-yard reception, and Wooten added two late field goals (29, 27) to finalize the scoring for both teams.
"There's an adage in coaching that you're never as good as you think you are and you're never as bad as you think you are, so we'll look at the film tomorrow and I'm sure we'll find some things that we're not happy with," Davis said.
North Carolina now has nine days to prepare for Virginia Tech on September 20th in a game that will help shape the ACC Coastal Division race.