CHAPEL HILL–The Tar Heels home opener against Middle Tennessee State proved to be a celebration of sorts. Kenan Stadium was a festive environment and the Tar Pit was rocking. What a contrast it was from the setback at South Carolina a little over a week ago. This time, it was Carolina evening their record at 1-1 with a resounding 40-20 victory.
But it didn’t start smoothly for the Tar Heels as the Blue Raiders marched the ball right down the throats of UNC on their opening drive. MTSU was on the doorstep of a touchdown when senior safety Tre Boston came up with a huge interception in the end zone to prevent the first points of the game from being scored.
The momentum continued to build for the Tar Heels after the interception, with Romar Morris capping off the five play scoring drive with a dash into the end zone. However, an aggressive two point conversion try failed for Head Coach Larry Fedora and Carolina went ahead by six points with 6:55 left in the first quarter.
A 59-yard pass connected for quarterback Bryn Renner. Mark McNeill hauled in the long strike to put the Carolina offense back in scoring position. And they didn’t waste the opportunity. Renner pushed the ball across the line to post a 13-0 lead at the close of the first quarter.
In total for the first quarter, Bryn Renner completed all four of his passes for 95 yards and Romar Morris gained 32 yards on the ground for the offense that appeared to be clicking early and often.
The second quarter started slowly for Carolina, unable to find their rhythm moving the football. But the defense sure didn’t crumble. Cornerback Tim Scott picked off one of Logan Kilgore’s passes to give UNC another crack at some points.
Some varied play calling kept the Blue Raider defense off balance as the Tar Heels began to pick their way down the football field with the aid of AJ Blue’s legs and Sean Tapley’s arms.
However, Bryn Renner’s 140 consecutive pass attempts without an interception came to a close when the Blue Raiders snagged a misfired throw to take over with almost nine minutes left in the half.
Once again, bandit defender Norkeithus Otis was all over the field, seemingly in on every tackle for Carolina. And UNC forced a three and out for the Blur Raiders.
A forty three yard reception by Tapley put Carolina back on the MTSU side of the field. The crowd was roaring for the Tar Heel offensive explosion that continued when Renner found Tabb for a thirty yard gain. And Romar Morris hammered in the touchdown to post a 20-0 lead for Carolina.
More good pressure was put on Logan Kilgore by Otis and company on the UNC defense to force yet another punt for the Blue Raiders.
In the waning seconds of the first half, Carolina began another assault on the end zone, but the pass in the corner to Quinshad Davis landed just barely out of bounds. But kicker Thomas Moore tacked on a field goal from 39 yards out to give Carolina a 23-0 halftime lead.
At the half, Carolina had outgained MTSU 326 to 99 yards of offense. Renner went 11 for 14 on his pass attempts and totaled 219 yards through the air while running back Morris tallied 43 yards off the ground.
The Blue Raiders started the second half with a lot of fight despite the large deficit, polishing off an impressive drive with a 22-yard touchdown run by Jordan Park. The score was cut to 23-7.
The next Tar Heel offensive series was uneventful, resulting in a punt scenario to hand the ball back to the Blue Raiders with a lot of confidence growing.
In a pivotal part of the game, the dynamic MTSU offense began to slash through the UNC defense once again, gaining confidence and momentum with each and every play. Missed tackles added to the Tar Heel woes.
But the third interception of the day bailed out Carolina once again. Darien Rankin earned his fourth career interception at just the right moment for UNC.
Would the Tar Heels reclaim the momentum and reassert their authority on the contest? UNC began to keep the ball on the ground, riding Blue and Morris to grind out yardage up the middle on a smaller defensive line for MTSU.
The drive ended with another Thomas Moore field goal that went through the uprights from 35 yards out to give UNC a nineteen point lead at 26-7 with 3:06 left in the third quarter.
Kilgore continued to find some holes in the UNC secondary on the ensuing drive as the Blue Raiders quickly moved out across the 50-yard line. But the Tar Heel defense answered the bell, highlighted by a Kareem Martin sack that handed the balls back to Renner and the offense to try and get something going.
It was Carolina’s offense that would open proceedings in the final quarter with a third down play. And a punt was a result-marking the third three and out of the second half for a sputtering Tar Heel offense.
More trouble for Carolina continued when Ryan Switzer fumbled and the Blue Raiders picked it up and returned it for a touchdown to narrow the gap with the score sitting at 26-13 with 12:54 to play in the game.
That last fumble must have angered the Tar Heels a bit, because they responded emphatically with a powerful attack on the next drive. The eighteen yard touchdown throw from Renner to Quinshad Davis was a beauty, and set the score at 33-13 to let the Tar Heel faithful breathe easy.
MTSU gave one last ditch effort to get back in the game, making their way down to the red zone before being shut down by UNC on fourth down to turn the ball over.
In the final few minutes, Marquise Williams got some snaps under center for Carolina. He picked up UNC’s 25th first down of the day as the Tar Heels kept the clock running. Williams threw a touchdown to up the score to 40-13.
MTSU added their own response in the form of a successful touchdown pass to make the final score an even 40-20 line in favor of Carolina.