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October 1, 2011

Heels ruin Pirates' party

GREENVILLE -- East Carolina fans arrived in droves on Saturday night, but North Carolina spoiled their party with a great first half en route to a 35-20 victory.

"It was rowdy for about five minutes in the first quarter," said UNC linebacker Kevin Reddick, who is from nearby New Bern. "After that, it kind of went down.

"That was a great feeling, getting the crowd quiet and getting those turnovers and seeing sad faces."

There were plenty of unhappy Pirate fans, as the Tar Heels raced to a 28-3 lead. UNC buried the Pirates with an attacking defense, elusive rushing by Giovani Bernard and cool efficiency by Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner and his receivers.

The Tar Heels did not commit a turnover in improving to 4-1 on the season, while UNC forced four turnovers from the Pirates, who dropped to 1-3.

Much of the offensive production can be attributed to an excellent performance by UNC's offensive line.

"They did a great job of opening those holes," Bernard said. "They were the ones who are paving the way for me. I'm really a follower, a little guy behind them trying to find my way out."

Having players on both sides of the ball play in sync made this game even more fun, Bernard said.

"I think the offense and the defense feed off the emotions of the other," Bernard, who gained 146 yards rushing on 24 carries (6.1-yard average) to become the first UNC running back to gain more than 100 yards in three consecutive games since Natrone Means did it in 1992.

"As an offense, if we put points on the board, the defense is going to want to do the same thing. They're going to want to get turnovers. They're going to want to score on their own. It showed tonight. We got a win and that is all that really matters."

Last week against Georgia Tech, UNC forced turnovers but failed to make the most of the scoring opportunities. Everything about the Tar Heels' offensive performance was an improvement this week.

"Zero sacks all day," Renner said. "That is a big improvement from last week. It was my fault last week. They've done a great job of protecting me all year.

"We want to score every time we get the ball."

Once again, the defensive provided the offense with opportunities by forcing turnovers. The Tar Heels intercepted two passes, forced three fumbles and recovered two of those.

This time, they used the takeaways to eat clock and bury the Pirates beneath a lead it simply could not overcome with its short passing game.

"They're a powerful football team," ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. "Everett [Withers] has done a great job. Their offensive and defensive lines are very powerful, and they have a chance to contend for the ACC championship.

"The first half, we got ourselves in a hole. … My hat goes off to Everett and that football team."

Renner, after throwing a couple of costly interceptions against Georgia Tech, played a superb game against the Pirates. He completed 13 of 20 passes for 230 yards and four touchdowns, which included a 75-yard TD pass to Erik Highsmith.

"I thought Bryn was sharp tonight," Withers said. "I really did. He threw the ball away when he had to. That shows a lot of growth. I'm really proud of him."

As for the Tar Heels gaining 226 yards rushing on 40 attempts, Withers said that accomplishment achieved a goal UNC failed to reach a week ago.

"That's our identity," Withers said. "We talked about it at halftime. We wanted to take the ball and take the air out of it. We want to run it, run it, run it, and then throw when we had our shots. We were able to do that for the most part."

Renner had a 75-yard TD pass to Erik Highsmith, thanks in part to the success of its running game. Dwight Jones caught a one-handed touchdown grab that will certainly make the Tar Heels' highlight reel for the season.

By rushing well and scoring efficiently, the Tar Heels revealed the weakness in ECU's offense.

East Carolina relies on its short-passing game to serve as its running game in many respects, which is one reason the Pirates gained just 73 yards rushing.

Although the Pirates gained 417 yards passing, Carolina's ability to force a couple of crucial field goals rather than touchdowns played a big role in the ultimate outcome of this game.

The Pirates also used way too much clock without finishing with touchdowns.

"It's not good to let them get [near the red zone]," Reddick said. "But it is always good if they do get down here to hold them to three [points]. Our coaches focus on that a lot."

So in the end, the Tar Heels accomplished they came to do. Dominate early, remove the crowd as a factor and then cruise to the fourth victory of the season.

"It was great to come in here and shut down the crowd early, get them out early," said defensive end Quinton Coples, who is from nearby Kinston. "This is very satisfying. It's a great feeling to come back home, play in this environment and get a 'W' out of it."


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