It was a far cry from the lackluster opener played twelve days ago in Chapel Hill. What was the difference?
"We were very disappointed in ourselves in the way we played last week against McNeese and I think our players really responded," head coach Butch Davis said. "They showed a lot of pride, perseverance -- we were tough on them in practice. We challenged them. We challenged in absolutely everything we did."
It paid off.
In the first quarter, this game looked as though it would be a hard-fought defensive contest. After the Tar Heels stopped a nice drive by Rutgers – resulting in a San San Te 43-yard field goal – the Tar Heels managed to hang on to the ball for nearly three minutes on their next possession. After holding the Scarlet Knights to a three-and-out, the Tar Heels took the field and held the ball for 5:16, though moving the ball only 18 yards.
On the next Rutgers possession, the Tar Heels came up with the turnover, an interception by Charles Brown. As big as the turnover was for the Heels offensively, it put Rutgers back on defense after its offense held the ball for only 24 seconds of elapsed time on the clock.
By the start of the second quarter the Tar Heels were down 3-0, but held nearly a four-minute advantage in time of possession, had field position created by the interception, and had no turnovers of their own. They also converted half of their third-down attempts in the first quarter (as they would for the game, going 8-for-16). The Tar Heels seemed poised to be competitive in a game that would be a slugfest into the fourth quarter - then the avalanche began.
The Big Strike
Quarterback T.J. Yates delivered after the interception, throwing a strike to a wide-open Hakeem Nicks in the corner of the end zone. That touchdown pass was set up, however, by consecutive runs by Greg Little into the teeth of the Rutgers defense, and when Yates took the snap on third-and-two, the Rutgers defense was obviously convinced Little would again get the carry. The "Big Strike," however, came after UNC once again forced a Rutgers punt – on the ensuing play, Yates hit a streaking Brandon Tate for a 69-yard touchdown pass, a career-long for senior receiver.
Tate Strikes Again
In addition to notching yet another career record for himself, Tate opened the second half scoring for the Tar Heels on a 12-yard end-around to run the score, after the PAT, to 24-6. Later in the third quarter, Tate would haul in a 42-yard pass reception. The senior is creating a "Reggie Bush-like" buzz with his kick-returning, pass-receiving, and rushing skills. In the last two games, he's scored as a returner, a rusher, and a receiver.
"I just told him in the hallway that he's earned his scholarship for another week," Davis said.
Tate, however, also benefits because he's not the only threat in the Tar Heel passing attack.
"It's unbelievable -- you can throw the ball anywhere and he'll catch it," Yates said. "Same with Hakeem, same with Brooks, it is such a good feeling as a quarterback to have receivers like that can do it all."
Defense Creates Big Plays
While the defense yielded nearly 400 yards to the Rutgers offense, it came up with three critical turnovers on interceptions by Charles Brown and Kendric Burney, while Bruce Carter's turned a "pick-six" in the third quarter, returning Mike Teel's third interception 66 yards to put the game virtually out of reach in the third quarter.
"We came up with some unbelievably timely interceptions that clearly -- when the game was a lot closer than the final score indicated -- stalled the drive and kept putting them in some bad field position," Davis said.
The Tar Heels were effective in preventing Rutgers from getting deep with their two excellent receivers, Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt – neither had a reception for over 24 yards.
"We played a little short-handed [in the secondary] last week, we got three corners back this week that helped an awful lot," Davis said. "Because there were so many multiple three wide receiver sets [Charles Brown] is a very good inside nickel corner, he's fast, he's quick, he's physical - getting some depth and speed in your secondary I think that helped us a little bit."
Young Hands on Defensive Line
The Tar Heels did play some youngsters in this game – true freshmen defensive ends Robert Quinn and Quinton Coples both logged extensive minutes in this game.
" One of the biggest regrets I had after the McNeese game, I was so mad at myself for not being more in tune to getting those guys in because we had absolutely every intention two weeks ago of getting those guys in," Davis said. "We need them – we need some speed, we need some athleticism, we need to develop that type of rotation where every single Saturday regardless of the opponent you've got seven, eight, or nine, ten guys – you all watched tonight – as many times as Rutgers threw the ball and McNeese threw it last week, four [defensive linemen] can't survive. "
One of the biggest concerns as the season began was whether UNC had anyone that could reliably kick a field goal. Tonight was a step in the right direction, as Jay Wooten connected on field goals of 43, 29, and 27 yards. Coach Davis had made frequent mention of his concerns in this area, but tonight everything worked.
"I couldn't ask for a better protection unit tonight, my line did a great job, Lowell Dyer, my snapper [and] Trase Jones, my holder, did a phenomenal job," Wooten said. "I was just one small part of the equation, it takes 10 other guys to make those points, I guess those points go under my name but it was definitely a group effort."
It takes time to groove the timing that is necessary to make something which looks as simple as a field goal work.
"Everybody has kind of got to build trust in each other - you got to trust I'm going to make it, I trust that the snap will be there - Trase, I've got to trust him to get it down, and the line will block, so it is all about trust," Wooten said.
Wooten was able to make his attempts without the pressure of winning or losing the game hanging in the balance, but it should help boost his confidence to go 3-for-3 in a hostile setting.