CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and his players gathered in front of the student section at Kenan Stadium on Saturday and celebrated their 27-6 victory against East Carolina while the Tar Heels band played the alma mater.
It was a scene reminiscent of the one that came after UNCs 62-0 victory against Elon on Sept. 1, but much had changed since then. The Tar Heels had suffered consecutive defeats by a combined six points, and they had lost their best offensive player to injury.
This, then a complete and dominating performance against ECU was just what UNC needed. For the first time in three weeks, Fedora walked into his postgame news conference and didnt need to explain a fourth-quarter defensive breakdown, or a disastrous first half.
Weve got a much better taste in our mouth than weve had, he said.
Fedora didnt go as far as to say the Heels played a great game, as he put it.
But we played a complete game, he said. We played hard the entire game.
And that was good enough for the Tar Heels. UNC (2-2) turned a 10-6 halftime lead into a 24-6 lead by the end of the third quarter. The Heels did that with a flurry of game-changing plays on both offense and defense the first of which was Bryn Renners 62-yard touchdown pass to Sean Tapley.
Less than a minute later, Tar Heels linebacker Kevin Reddick sacked Pirates quarterback Shane Carden, who fumbled. UNC defensive end Kareem Martin recovered, which set up Giovani Bernards 4-yard touchdown run. In a span of less than three minutes, the Heels lead grew from four points to 18.
Bernard had missed UNCs previous two games while recovering from a knee injury he suffered against Elon. Last week, he watched the Tar Heels 39-34 loss at Louisville at home with his girlfriend. He said he had to change the channel a few times during the first half, while Louisville built a 36-7 halftime lead.
You just want to be out there with your team, Bernard said. You want to be out there with your teammates, and guys that you work out with all summer and all spring and all fall It killed me not being able to travel last week.
Bernard said he didnt want to play unless he felt at full strength. He felt that way on Saturday. His 14-yard touchdown reception gave UNC an early 7-0 lead, but he finished with a modest 50 yards rushing. His presence, though, undoubtedly helped open things up for Renner and the Tar Heels passing game. Renner completed 27 of his 43 attempts for 321 yards and two touchdowns.
After throwing for a career-high 363 yards last week, Renner has now thrown for more yards in consecutive games than any other quarterback in school history.
The second half (at) Louisville, we kind of understood where we could be as a team and as an offense, Renner said. And we took a lot of pride in that this week and continued it over to practice.
The consecutive losses at Wake Forest and at Louisville were bad enough but a loss at home against ECU (2-2) could have been catastrophic for a UNC team still trying to discover its identity in Fedoras first season. The Tar Heels defense, though, held the Pirates to field goals after a pair of long drives in the first half, and then UNC allowed just 71 yards of offense during the second.
Martin, the defensive end whose fumble recovery set up Bernards second touchdown, said the Heels defense had to prove itself after poor performances in recent weeks. If anything, the Heels proved they were better than what they showed at times against Wake and Louisville.
During the third quarter, especially, UNC imposed its will. Senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who had one of the Heels seven sacks, could sense the Pirates frustration especially that of Carden, the ECU quarterback.
There were times he was looking at his o-line and be like, Come on, guys, Williams said. His o-line, they would even get mad at themselves, kind of like, Well, thats your guy, or, Well, thats your guy. And thats how we want it to be.
UNC compiled 450 yards of offense, and held the Pirates to nearly half of that. Unlike the Tar Heels previous two games, which both were decided by dramatic plays deep into the fourth quarter, this one lacked any kind of late tension.
Which seemed OK to Fedora.
For our guys to get that taste out of their mouth and get back on the other side is big, he said. Because they know were going to work the same no matter what. So you might as well enjoy Saturday.
For the first time in a few weeks, UNC did.