CHAPEL HILL— The idyllic scene of a crowded Kenan Stadium underneath Carolina blue skies greeted the Tar Heels as they kicked off their game against in-state rival East Carolina Saturday. But the play of the Tar Heels did not match the beauty of the surroundings.
And it didn’t take long for things to turn sour. An 11 play, 73-yard opening drive was capped off by a touchdown by star wide receiver Justin Hardy for the Pirates. With the score at 7-0 early, Carolina must have known they were in for another tussle.
A crucial early third down conversion for the Tar Heels was picked up on a spirited run by A.J. Blue. That was followed up by a nice grab by tight end Eric Ebron to cross midfield. But momentum was seemingly halted following an official timeout and an ECU stoppage time.
A Hibbard punt into the end zone capped off a disappointing opening drive for UNC. And the Pirates didn’t waste any time moving the ball once again. They consistently slashed the Tar Heel defense with crisp passes and dives all over the field.
East Carolina took a couple shots down field, but failed to haul one in. And the Tar Heel defense came up with a vital stop to force a Pirate punt around the 50-yard line.
A 41-yard return by Ryan Switzer set Carolina up for a good scoring chance. Would the Tar Heels capitalize? No sir. Bryn Renner was intercepted by Chip Thompson to get the ball back for ECU.
The extreme up-tempo offense for ECU that even saw some snaps before the UNC defense could get set. Open wide receivers were easy targets for ECU QB Shane Carden. And this drive was finished off with a touchdown pass from Carden to Lance Ray.
It now stood at 14-0 ECU with 3:06 left to play in the first quarter. Eight different Pirate receivers already hauled in passes. The multi-faceted attacked was proving too much for the Tar Heels.
As the first quarter was winding to a close, Carolina no doubt felt the urgency to put some points up on the scoreboard, and with the help of a questionable pass interference call on ECU, Carolina’s drive was kept alive.
A 29-yard sprint by UNC’s Quinshad Davis set up a first and goal for the Tar Heels as time expired on the first quarter of play. And East Carolina Pirates were all fired up with their level of effort, even having a team powwow on the field before beginning proceedings in the second period.
The drive stalled out in the shadow of the Blue Zone. But the field goal was punched through the uprights by Thomas Moore to place the score at 14-3.
The Tar Heel defense made a huge play to get the ball back in a hurry when senior safety Tre Boston swiped the ball away.
Renner and company began their assault at the end zone in earnest, quickly moving the ball out to around the newly “stars and stripes” painted UNC logo in the middle of the field.
But another offensive drive ultimately resulted in nothing as Hibbard was rushed back on the field for another boot.
In a pathetic showing by the Tar Heel defense that featured missed tackle after missed tackle, they gave up another quick score by the Pirates capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by quarterback Carden.
On the verge of being completely embarrassed down 21-3 on their home turf, UNC put in some more offensive work.
Terrible coverage by ECU allowed Ryan Switzer to catch a ball thrown by Bryn Renner to get the Tar Heels into ECU territory. Nice trickery by the Larry Fedora offense resulted in a solid pass by Quinshad Davis to T.J. Thorpe for a score that pulled Carolina back into the contest.
With the score sitting at 21-10, ECU began to dink and dunk it back down the field. On this occasion, it came down to a goal line exchange amounting to a battle of wills between these two rivals. But the Pirates snuck it across the line to gain a 28-10 lead.
To add salt in the wounds, the Tar Heels recorded a three and out in their last possession of the half to head into the locker room down 28-10.
ECU quarterback Shane Carden was 19-28 for 202 yards with two touchdowns through the air and another two off the ground to put his team in prime position to win the game.
On the other side, Carolina’s quarterback Bryn Renner amassed 153 yards and an interception. A.J. Blue totaled 46 yards rushing to lead all backs for the Tar Heels.
Would the second half be an awakening for the Tar Heels? One can only wonder what the halftime locker room speech was like for Coach Fedora.
More missed tackles; sluggish running and poor coverage plagued the Tar Heel defense as the ECU offense sliced their way to another touchdown run by Chris Hairston to notch the score to 35-10.
A solid toss over the middle by Renner to Ebron got the ball rolling for Carolina. With a huge deficit facing them, scoring on this drive was a necessity. And Carolina marched it down to the goal line.
And it was Bug Howard who made an athletic catch for a touchdown to trim the deficit to 18 with 9:36 left in the third quarter.
For ECU, it seemed they were running downhill while Carolina faced a steep, intense climb. In the ensuing drive, the Pirates began to progress into Tar Heel territory again off crisp passing and athletic running.
And a run around the corner of the line by Carden put ECU back on top 42-17. The game was definitely getting out of hand. And the crowd in Kenan Stadium knew it as they began to file out of their seats.
And with that score, ECU eclipsed its previous highest score tally ever in their series against UNC.
Special teams were the only bright spot for the Tar Heels on this day. Continually setting up the offense with good looks at scores, it was ultimately up to how efficient Bryn Renner could be running the unit.
Unheralded junior receiver Nic Platt recorded a quick strike touchdown from Renner to move the score to 42-24 with 4:41 left in the third quarter. It was Platt’s first career touchdown.
Another ECU possession meant another march down the field and more missed tackles for the Carolina defense. Pressure in the back field was few and far between for the defensive front for the Tar Heels.
A crucial fourth down decision influenced a time out by the ECU sideline. And the Pirates decided to go for it on 4th and 2 on the Carolina 29-yard line.
ECU signal caller Carden showed off some flashy speed to pick up the first down around the end. But another fourth down presented itself with some fighting defensive play from the Tar Heels. And this time, East Carolina decided to kick a field goal to start the fourth quarter.
At the end of the third quarter, the Pirates had already tallied 486 yards of offense with 291 yards through the air. The Tar Heels were sitting at 371 total yards with 288 of those in passing.
Lightning finally struck for Carolina’s offense when Renner hurled a 56-yard bomb to Davis to get within 14 points with plenty of time left on the clock.
The momentum was definitely turning and the crowd was back in the game for the first time since the first quarter.
But ECU responded strongly, piecing together a methodical, time consuming drive down the throats of the reeling Carolina defense. And the field goal put the Pirates ahead 48-31 with 8:53 left to play.
And the Carolina offense had no response this time. Forced to punt in their own territory, the game was essentially finished at that point.
It was a sad day indeed for this Carolina squad that had such high hopes heading into the season. And now, they find themselves at 1-3. And when all was said and done, the contest finished up at 55-31.