ACC Football: North Carolina 35, East Carolina 20
By Aaron Beard
GREENVILLE — With another win against East Carolina in hand, North Carolina’s Quinton Coples walked to the locker room blowing kisses into the bleachers of a once-packed hostile stadium.
“I think after this one we’re not going to call it a rivalry anymore,” Coples said afterward. “We’re just going to call it another game.”
There was no arguing after the way the Tar Heels beat the Pirates 35-20 on Saturday night. North Carolina dominated early on the road and built a big lead to silence a record crowd. It marked the third straight season in which the Tar Heels (4-1) had beaten the Pirates (1-3) and 11th time in 14 meetings overall.
Bryn Renner threw for 230 yards and four touchdown passes to lead the Tar Heels, while Giovani Bernard ran for 146 yards and a score to lead a ground game that had 226 yards. Renner and the Tar Heels also avoided turnovers for the first time.
It was a significant improvement from last weekend’s 35-28 loss at Georgia Tech in which Renner threw two interceptions in his first road start. Of course, the defense’s four first-half takeaways certainly helped Renner feel comfortable in what should have been a rough environment.
“Any time you lose, you want to come back and fix your mistakes,” Renner said. “We want to score every time we touch the ball. That’s our whole goal. If we don’t do that, it’s not acceptable. But I think we did a great job of capitalizing on the opportunities we had.”
North Carolina scored the first 21 points and rolled to 326 yards to build a 28-3 halftime lead. Renner found Erik Highsmith for a 75-yard touchdown and Dwight Jones for a 47-yard TD toss in the half, while Bernard had secured his third straight 100-yard rushing performance by early in the second quarter.
“We’re a growing team,” UNC interim coach Everett Withers said. “I think the mark of a team is to go on the road in front of a hostile environment and play well. We did that at times last week. We did it more this week and I think it’s the reason we won the game.”
Dominique Davis and East Carolina’s offense finally built some momentum in the third quarter, getting a touchdown pass to Lance Lewis and closing to within 28-13 entering the final quarter. But, while the Pirates managed to move the football most of the game, they never recovered from that disastrous start and fell to 0-3 against BCS teams.
Davis threw for a school-record 417 yards, though many of those yards came in the second half after the Tar Heels had built their huge lead. He also threw two interceptions, half of the turnovers that sabotaged the Pirates from the opening kickoff.
“I’m more frustrated for them, not for me in a selfish mode,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said.
Renner and Jones connected for a second touchdown that ultimately turned away the Pirates’ modest rally. With UNC facing a third-and-goal from the 4, Jones snatched a high throw from Renner with his right hand and pulled it into his midsection despite wrestling with Pirates cornerback Emanuel Davis and falling to the turf. The impressive catch pushed the Tar Heels’ lead to 35-13 with 6:55 left and sent many of the home fans who hadn’t already bolted during halftime heading to the exits.
North Carolina’s first trip to Greenville since 2007 drew a packed-house crowd that prompted the school to offer standing-room only admission into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for about 600 fans, setting a new record attendance of 50,610. But the energy didn’t last, due both to the Tar Heels’ early dominance and the Pirates’ bumbling start.
The Pirates were coming off a 28-23 win against Alabama-Birmingham last week despite a school record-tying seven turnovers — and they picked right up where they left off. North Carolina’s Tre Boston ripped the ball away from Danny Webster on a catch in UNC territory to end East Carolina’s first drive, Davis threw an interception on the second and Reggie Bullock fumbled on a carry to end the third. Bullock’s fumble marked the fifth straight ECU possession — excluding a kneeldown at the end of the UAB victory — that ended with a turnover.
After Davis’ pick deep in the Pirates’ end, the Tar Heels needed just two plays for Renner to find Jheranie Boyd for an 11-yard touchdown and the game’s first score.