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October 4, 2008CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina linebacker Mark Paschal strode into the post-game interview sessions wearing an ear-to-ear grin on his face and Bruce Carter's No. 54 jersey on his exhausted body.
"I'm Bruce's No. 1 fan right now," Paschal said.
So was just about everyone else at Kenan Stadium after Carter blocked three punts to lead a big-play splurge on defense and special teams that helped the Tar Heels rout No. 24 Connecticut 38-12.
In a game billed as a battle of backup quarterbacks, those plays made all the difference and made it easy for Cam Sexton to pick up his second win in as many games since taking over for injured T.J. Yates.
Sexton numbers - 9 for 16 passing for 117 yards - were unspectacular.
But between Carter's blocked punts and the defense's three interceptions, spectacular wasn't a necessity for matching last year's win total.
"I thought Cam did an outstanding job of managing the game," UNC coach Butch Davis said. "It was kind of a bizarre game."
Statistically speaking, Davis was clearly understating the case.
The Huskies (5-1) beat the Tar Heels (4-1) on paper in just about every offensive statistical category, outgaining them by more than 100 yards in total offense.
Connecticut had nearly 13 more minutes of possession, and they ran 84 offensive plays to Carolina's 49.
The UNC defenders sure felt like they had been on the field for 84 plays when it was over.
"Oh, hell yeah," Paschal said. "I'm freaking beat."
But you would never have known it from the look on his face or anyone else's after the game.
Only smiles materialized when the Tar Heels thought about Carter's one-man block party.
"I was supposed to be holding up," Carter said. "But Coach Davis said if the situation presents itself, go ahead."
The last of the sophomore's three blocked punts - which came with five minutes still remaining in the second quarter - was recovered by Matt Merletti in the end zone to put Carolina up 17-3.
Then it was the defense's turn to make a difference.
The Tar Heels were already having success in slowing down UConn tailback Donald Brown, the nation's leading rusher. They held him to 63 first-half yards, far less than his previous first-half low this season on 111 yards.
Brown would wind up with 161 yards on the ground, but thanks to UNC's big defensive plays, Brown's success came too late.
A Paschal interception near the end of the first quarter gave UNC a short field and resulted in a one-yard Ryan Houston touchdown run.
Trimane Goddard's fourth pick of the year, near the UNC goal line with 10 seconds to go before halftime, preserved Carolina's two-touchdown lead at the break.
And finally, defensive tackle Marvin Austin's 23-yard interception return for touchdown in the third quarter put the Heels up 31-6 and certified the game as a blowout.
"Basically, I've been dreaming about it for years, scooping it up and taking it," Austin said. "I almost fell down twice actually but got to the end zone."
Before the crowd could enjoy Austin's big play, though, it had to endure the second lengthy delay in three home games this season.
In the season opener, it was because of lightning, and this time it was because of lighting, with the game stopping for 22 minutes after both banks of lights on the north side of Kenan Stadium went out
But considering what happened afterward, it was probably worth the wait.
With six minutes to go in the third, Shaun Draughn broke a 39-yard touchdown run to put UNC up 24-6. Draughn didn't start but finished the game with 109 yards rushing, making him the first Carolina tailback to crack the century mark this season.
On the next Connecticut series, UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson pressured quarterback Zach Frazer, who tried to throw the ball away but merely slung it sideways into the arms of Austin, who rumbled into the end zone with ease.
That was Carolina's 12th interception of the season - one more than they had in all of 2007 - and a perfect example of the good time the Tar Heels are having right now, whether it's celebrating on field or sneaking into each other's jerseys off of it.
"It's always fun when a big guy gets an interception and scores," Goddard said. "I don't know how many different guys have interceptions this year, but it shows you everyone's playing together and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves."