UNC’s offense carried over the momentum from last weekend’s come-from-behind 12-10 victory to Saturday’s showdown with East Carolina, rolling up 433 total yards of offense in its most impressive showing of the young season. The offensive line and wide receiver corps had been berated for two weeks prior to this contest, but both groups arrived intent to change the public’s opinion.
With time to throw and options available to throw to, Yates completed 19 of his 24 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Highsmith (No. 88) was on the receiving end of six of those catches for 113 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown reception on a corner route to tie the score at 7-7 in the first quarter. Fellow true frosh Jhay Boyd (No. 87) pulled in his first collegiate catch several minutes later, hitting a go route down the seam for 59 yards.
Tar Heel fans have grown accustomed to No. 88 and No. 87 making plays in recent years, as Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate also fashioned those numbers.
“I told somebody a little while ago, ‘I don’t know who’s going to wear those two jersey numbers in the next 25 years, but whoever comes in, I’d ask for No. 88 for sure,’” UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters in his postgame press conference.
Ryan Houston (12 carries for 41 yards, 2 TD) provided UNC’s final two touchdowns, running in from one yard out to put UNC in front for good at 21-14 in the second quarter and then adding a 5-yard run with 1:58 left to set the final margin. Shaun Draughn tallied 84 yards on 19 rushing attempts.
North Carolina’s defense continued doing what it’s done all season long – shut down the running game and frustrate the opposing quarterback. The Pirates managed just 247 total yards of offense, including 55 rushing yards on 30 carries. Sixth-year quarterback Patrick Pinkney was neutralized, completing 19-of-30 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown.
INSIDE THE GAME
Football is quickly falling in line with baseball as a sport that is saturated historically in statistics, but UNC’s late offensive performance speaks volumes above what’s listed in the final stat book. After dominating for nearly 35 minutes, defensive coordinator Everett Withers’ unit began to wear down when Pinkney and Co. took the field with 9:15 left in the third quarter.
On back-to-back possessions, the Pirates ran 28 plays and totaled 119 yards in 14 minutes and 16 seconds, but could only add three points to their number on the scoreboard. Even so, East Carolina had clawed back to 24-17 with 6:15 left in regulation. North Carolina’s next possession started at its own 19-yard-line, and ECU head coach Skip Holtz was well aware that anything resembling a 3-and-out would give his club the ball back in excellent position to coordinate a game-tying drive.
But that opportunity never presented itself. This UNC defense is stout, but not invincible. It needed its offensive counterpart to burn clock and provide much-needed rest on the sideline, and that’s exactly what offensive coordinator John Shoop delivered.
North Carolina marched 81 yards in eight plays in a possession that ended with Houston’s five-yard touchdown run for a 14-point lead. Just as important was the fact that the Tar Heels chewed up 4 minutes and 17 seconds of game clock, leaving the Pirates with just one minute and 54 seconds to pull out a miracle.
In East Harford last Saturday, Yates was battered and bruised to the tune of six sacks and countless unofficial quarterback hurries. Two factors came into play against Connecticut – (1) the Huskies’ defense doesn’t get the respect it deserves; and (2) center Cam Holland and left guard Greg Elleby were seeing their first significant action against BCS-level competition.
It’s amazing what a week of practice can do for you. On Saturday, Yates was barely touched as the Pirates were unable to register a sack and were credited with just three quarterback hurries.
“The offensive line just came together and we got more comfortable and we knew what each other was going to do and where we would be,” senior left tackle Kyle Jolly said. “… People don’t understand that with the offensive line, everybody has to be on the same page, because if we’re not, the slightest little mess up is going to cause a bad play.”
Yates added that smarter and quicker decisions on his part also helped cut down on the number of sacks against East Carolina.
“Some of the sacks last week were my fault in not getting rid of the ball,” Yates said. “I did that a little bit better this week. And the protection was so much better than it was last week. We stuck to our base protections – our seven-man stuff, nothing too complicated – and our offensive linemen did very, very well.”
Embracing the Rivalry
Davis has taken some heat in recent years for not placing any added importance on rivalry games, and he didn’t exactly change his tune following Saturday’s victory.
“Obviously, playing well against the other state schools is important,” Davis said. “It’s important to the fans and it’s important to the alumni, but it’s not any more important than just winning the game and being 3-0.”
Having said that, there’s no doubt that this was a personal contest for the numerous Tar Heel players that grew up in the Eastern part of the state. There evidently is no love lost between these two rosters.
“When we went down there to ECU [in 2007], I had boys spitting on me and cussing at me and punching me after plays,” said Draughn, a Tarboro, N.C. native. “A lot of boys on defense were doing that. So there was a lot of junk talking, but I’m glad I didn’t let my composure get away. The boys had to calm me down a couple of times.”
Starting free safety Deunta Williams echoed those sentiments.
“It’s hard to describe the feelings,” Williams, a Jacksonville, N.C. native. “You always want to be humble, but at the same time, when somebody smacks you in the face, it’s hard to be humble after that. Guys were talking and stuff like that. They talked all the trash they wanted to talk, but talk is cheap. We all know that.
“I heard that they had my quote that somebody was going to have their feelings hurt up on their little bulletin board. I didn’t want to disrespect, but somebody’s feelings were hurt at the end of the game. And we don’t have any tissues over here.”
Help Wanted in the Punting Department
North Carolina may have dominated the offensive and defensive statistics, but East Carolina was able to keep this game close by winning the field position battle. ECU’s average field position was its 38-yard-line, compared to UNC starting at its 26-yard-line.
The primary difference falls on the punters’ feet. The Pirates' Matt Dodge averaged 48.8 yards per kick on five attempts, including three that were downed inside the 20. The Tar Heels’ Grant Schallock, on the other hand, averaged 31.2 yards on four attempts.
If North Carolina expects to win games on defense, Withers’ crew has to receive more help in winning the field position battle. Backup punter C.J. Feagles was warming up on the sidelines during the second half on Saturday, so keep an eye on a potential change next weekend in Atlanta.