“The way the games have gone so far this year, you could say that there hasn’t been just one hero,” UNC head coach Butch Davis said during his postgame press conference. “There have been a number of different guys in different areas, or collectively in different position groups that have stepped up and played well at any given point in time.”
The Saturday night recognition list is long with names and contributions.
There’s Trimane Goddard’s red zone interception to go along with Marvin Austin’s 23-yard interception return for touchdown. There’s Shaun Draughn’s 39-yard touchdown run, as well as Ryan Houston’s 35-yard scamper, and we probably should throw in Hakeem Nicks’ 31-yard sideline grab against tight coverage on 3rd-and-19.
North Carolina’s box score details a multi-pronged scoring attack. The Tar Heels (4-1, 1-1 ACC) scored on the ground, through the air, on an interception, and with a blocked punt.
Which brings us to Bruce Carter.
In one of the most remarkable individual performances in recent memory, the sophomore blocked – partially or fully – three consecutive UConn punts in the second quarter. Add in Miami’s final punt last weekend, and Carter had a string of four straight blocks – unprecedented in modern FBS history.
To enhance an already staggering statistic, Carter’s four blocks tied Bracey Walker’s UNC season-single record for blocked punts set in 1993, and also set the school’s single-game record with three blocks on Saturday night.
“I can’t say enough about No. 54 tonight,” senior linebacker Mark Paschal said. “If they made Bruce Carter pajamas, I’d wear them.”
Carter’s first block was more of a deflection, misdirecting Desi Cullen’s 47-yard punt toward the right hash mark in the first quarter. His second and third blocks, however, occurred deep in UConn territory. Cullen’s kick from the 13-yard line was recovered at the 19, while his third punt from the 3-yard line was picked up by Matt Merletti in the end zone for a touchdown that put the Heels on top, 17-3, with 5:08 remaining before halftime.
Davis indicated that UConn (5-1) had inserted a new personal protector – the player that lines up behind the deep snapper – in the punting unit, and the Tar Heels executed a plan to target that position perfectly.
"We felt like if we could kind of confuse them a little bit with some of the alignments, we might get some pressure off the edge," Davis said. "It wasn't anything spectacular by scheme, other than guys giving great effort. And certainly Bruce made some great plays."
UNC’s playmakers showed up in droves in front of a nationally-televised audience, even with a 22-minute delay due to the North side lights shutting off. Paschal returned an early Zach Frazer interception 23 yards to the UConn 15 yard-line, setting up Houston’s 1-yard touchdown run to give UNC a 10-3 lead in the first quarter.
After Tony Ciaravino connected on his second field goal attempt (26, 31) to open the third stanza for Connecticut and cut the deficit to 17-6, the UNC avalanche ensued. Draughn’s 39-yard run put the Heels up 24-6, followed by Austin’s 23-yard interception return and Nicks’ 13-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 38-6. Those three scores came in a 6-minute, 10-second window midway through the second half.
Draughn tallied 109 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown, and Houston added 39 yards on three carries and a score. Nicks caught three balls from Cam Sexton (9-of-16 for 117 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) for 55 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Tar Heels were on top of their game, racking up seven tackles for losses (including one sack), seven pass breakups, seven quarterback hurries and three interceptions. North Carolina now has 12 interceptions on the season – collected by eight different players – giving the Heels one more pick than they had in all of 2007.
Donald Brown managed 161 yards on 33 carries and a touchdown, but North Carolina frustrated Frazer (24-of-44, 210 yards, 3 INT) enough that the Huskies were playing from too far behind to play to their strengths.
Because of North Carolina’s big plays across the board, Connecticut dominated the stat book. The Huskies held a 23-to-13 advantage in first downs, soaked up nearly 13 more minutes of game clock (36:22 to 23:38) and gained 115 more yards of total offense (378 to 263).
But in the end, none of those statistics lead you to the ultimate outcome. As Davis was leaving the players lounge after his postgame press conference, he turned to one media member and said, “There’s only one stat that matters.”