The party here started earlier in the week and intensified while the days passed, the anticipation building one after the next, until the largest crowd in the history of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium had arrived, packed in and purple, on Saturday afternoon.
There were more than 51,000 of them who came to watch East Carolina and North Carolina, and most stuck around for a while after it ended – a 70-41 ECU victory that left the Pirates jubilant, blissful, and left the Tar Heels, some of them, walking off the field cursing and shaking their heads.
“They’re not better than us,” Donnie Miles, a UNC freshman linebacker, was screaming as he walked off the field. For the second consecutive year, though, the scoreboard told a different story, though the final score described only a small portion of ECU’s record-setting victory.
The Pirates set a school record for total yards (789), and UNC a record for most yards allowed. ECU’s 70 points were the second-most they’d ever scored, and the most the Tar Heels had ever allowed. Afterward, on one side of the field, UNC coach Larry Fedora stood stunned and shocked.
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He had just walked off the field, his head high, taking in the scene around him. His eyes seemed locked on the scoreboard, as if he wanted to remember this.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked what had disappointed him most about this, one of the most humbling defeats in school history. “I don’t know what the most disappointing aspect (was). There were a lot of disappointments.”
Somewhere else, after he’d addressed his players, after he’d had a few moments to bask in the glow of one of the proudest moments in ECU history, Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill tried to describe his emotions. What could he say? What could anyone say, after this?
“I’m very proud of our team and I’m very proud of our players and coaches,” McNeill said. “It means they’re happy; it means our families are happy, and that means a lot.
“To see our fans come out and support us like they always do, it means they’re happy.”
They were. Happy and loud and, at times, delirious – especially in the second half while ECU built on its 35-20 halftime lead, turning a game that had been competitive for much of the first half into a demolition. The Pirates last season gained 603 yards of offense during their victory in Chapel Hill.
They were better on Saturday, and UNC’s defense was worse. There were still about five minutes left in the third quarter on Saturday when the Pirates eclipsed their yardage total from last year against UNC.
And moments later, after that 84-yard run from Breon Allen, a senior running back, ECU quarterback Shane Carden scored on a two-yard run that gave the Pirates a 49-27 lead. The celebration was on.
Carden was responsible for six touchdowns in the victory against UNC a season ago, and he did the same on Saturday. He passed for 438 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two more. He spoke afterward of what this victory represented – such dominance against a so-called power five conference opponent.
“It means a lot,” Carden said. “When you’re not in the power-five conferences and you get opportunities to play teams from those conferences, ranked teams from those conferences, you’ve got to win them.
“If you want to say you want to be a part of that and you should be in the mix with those teams, you have to win those games.”
This was ECU’s second consecutive victory against an ACC team this season and fourth consecutive overall, dating to last season. The Pirates beat N.C. State and UNC a season ago, and then Virginia Tech last weekend.
This was the most triumphant of them all, a rout that ended with Carden and ECU’s other starters on the bench, savoring the scene. The Pirates made it look easy on offense mainly because of their success in the running game, with Allen finishing with a career-high 233 yards.
It was close, for a while, in the first half, and UNC, thanks to the successful execution of a couple of trick plays, held leads of 13-7 and 20-14. After the Tar Heels went ahead by that margin, though, the Pirates scored four touchdowns, two of them on Carden passes and one on a 44-yard run from Allen.
That run, the one for 44 yards, came on a 3rd-and-28, and it personified in a single play UNC’s defensive futility. The Tar Heels, who also committed four personal penalties, didn’t tackle well, didn’t shed blocks, blew assignments and, generally, allowed the Pirates to do whatever they pleased.
The defeat left Fedora as sullen as he has been in his three seasons as the Tar Heels coach.
“It makes you re-evaluate everything,” he said. “It makes you re-evaluate who you are, who I am, and who we are as a football team. And we’ll find out a lot about who we are. We really will.”
In another locker room, ECU celebrated one of its most memorable victories in school history. The festivities that started earlier in the week continued on into the night.