UNC drops home game to ECU for first time since 1975

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 28, 2013 

— During the bus ride to Kenan Stadium on Saturday, A.J. Blue didn’t like what he saw and felt.

Blue, the senior running back at North Carolina, thought about that after his team’s 55-31 loss to East Carolina here Saturday – the Tar Heels’ worst defeat under second-year coach Larry Fedora.

“I saw it earlier today,” Blue said afterward of what had troubled him. “Just from the hotel, the bus ride over; the lack of focus. Guys talking about other things.… It’s ECU. Nobody expects to lose to ECU, especially us.

“So the complacency was definitely there, the lack of focus was there.”

Entering Saturday, UNC had defeated ECU by at least 14 points in each of the past four seasons. The Tar Heels won all four of those games by an average of nearly 20 points.

On Saturday, the game was another blowout – just not the kind UNC ever could have imagined.

The Tar Heels’ misery against ECU (3-1) began early in the first quarter, from the Pirates’ first possession, and it didn’t end until late in the fourth quarter, after Pirates junior quarterback Shane Carden threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Lance Ray that provided the game’s final points, with about three minutes to play.

Between the end of that first drive and Ray’s catch, the Pirates embarrassed the Tar Heels like they hadn’t been embarrassed in years.

What happened on the field was bad enough for UNC (1-3). The Tar Heels allowed 603 yards to a team that averaged 322 yards in its first three games. UNC gave up 227 yards rushing against the Pirates, who entered Saturday ranked 118th nationally in rushing offense.

Perhaps worse than any of that, however, might have been what emerged after: That some UNC players didn’t take ECU seriously. The Pirates hadn’t won in Chapel Hill since 1975, yet after their annihilation Saturday, they hung around a while inside Kenan Stadium and walked off to the sound of their band playing their fight song.

How strange a scene it must have been for the Tar Heels, who arrived Saturday, Blue said, with a sense that victory should, and would, come easily.

“None of us (had) ever lost to ECU,” Blue said. “And with them being I guess a lower-ranked opponent, or (from a) lower (conference), I just think guys got complacent, and a lack of preparation just kind of killed us.”

In the final moments of a game that had long been decided, some ECU players emptied a water cooler over coach Ruffin McNeill. In the visiting locker room, the Pirates celebrated a victory that might have been the most significant of McNeill’s four-year tenure as ECU head coach.

“To get the win was big,” said McNeill, who played at ECU from 1976-79, and was part of a team that tied UNC in 1979. “Having played in this game, I’ve been asked about that quite a bit. It’s special. And it’s always an intense, hard-hitting game.”

It was on one side Saturday. While the Pirates celebrated on one end of Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels retreated to their locker room on the other side, stunned. They trailed 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and 28-10 at halftime.

Carden did the most damage. He accounted for six touchdowns – three rushing, three passing – and threw for 376 yards.

Carden at times made it look easy against UNC’s defense, likely because it was easy, given how open the Tar Heels left receivers and how much difficulty they had making tackles.

From the start, UNC appeared flat and listless. Fedora and his players spoke after of a lack of energy and urgency.

“I know this,” Fedora said. “You have to play the game with passion, you have to play it with enthusiasm, you have to play it with energy – no matter what happens. Doesn’t matter what happens, you can’t let one play affect the next play, and we obviously don’t have that right now.”

By halftime, ECU had amassed 311 yards, just nine short of its season average entering the game. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, gained 251 yards in the first half but had just 10 points.

Once again, the UNC running game faltered. The Tar Heels gained just 67 yards rushing. Once again, Bryn Renner, the Tar Heels’ senior quarterback, struggled to find a rhythm. He was often off target during the first half, when UNC desperately tried to stay in the game. Renner’s throws sailed high and wide; some wobbled their way down the field.

“The season’s not over,” Renner said. “We’re 1-3 right now but we can easily get on a winning streak. I think everybody needs to stay positive and stay upbeat. I think that’s the biggest thing we need to have in that locker room right there.”

Fedora struggled to explain what he had just witnessed, unable to identify anything positive. The Tar Heels attempted to rally in the second half but never trailed by fewer than 14 points.

Defensively, UNC failed to stop the run or the pass. Offensively, the Tar Heels gained 465 yards, but for the second consecutive week had a touchdown called back because of a penalty.

“It’s hard for me to tell you what went wrong when everything went wrong,” Fedora said.

When it ended, Blue addressed his teammates in the UNC locker room. He spoke of the importance of not spreading blame, of staying together.

Yet he made clear, too, that attitudes needed to change. From the start, he said, he could tell “that certain guys knew they weren’t going to give it 100percent out there today.”

And from the start, it showed.

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