CHAPEL HILL – In just a few plays and even fewer minutes, East Carolina went from hopeful underdog to hopeless visitor Saturday.
With the ball and down by only four points in the second half, the Pirates were right where they wanted to be. But this year, North Carolina has dominated the third quarter.
A quick surge continued that trend.
In just eight plays, North Carolina scored twice inside Kenan Stadium. The fourth quarter was just a formality in the Tar Heels’ 27-6 victory.
“I don’t know what it is, but I hope we keep doing it,” North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner said. “I really can’t explain it. We just go out there and have fun. … We let the game happen.”
Renner was coming off a career day last Saturday, and East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden was coming off his first career start.
Both played their expected part.
Renner threw for more than 300 yards for the second straight game – the first time in his career. One game after tying a school record with five touchdown passes, Renner set a new school record for a two-game passing total.
Renner has thrown for 684 yards in the past two games. He threw for 321 against East Carolina, while connecting with eight different receivers and throwing two touchdowns.
“It’s coming together still,” said Renner, who mentioned that this past week was his best week of practice.
Carden was plagued all game by dropped passes and poor protection as he was sacked seven times by North Carolina (2-2 overall, 0-1 ACC), which was the most sacks by the Tar Heels since 2000.
“They did a good job of being able to get pressure with four and defend,” said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill, who remained winless as a coach or player against North Carolina. “If you can do that against any offense and leave seven in coverage, you’re going to be good.”
Rocky Mount High grad Jacobi Jenkins, who starts at cornerback for East Carolina (2-2, 1-0 CUSA), did not play due to an injury.
But not even Jenkins could have helped East Carolina, which ended a three-game road trip in Chapel Hill, in the third quarter. After the first sack of cornerback Jabari Price’s career, Renner connected with receiver Sean Tapley for a 62-yard touchdown – the first touchdown of Tapley’s career.
Three players later, North Carolina linebacker Kevin Reddick pressured Carden as he stepped up into the pocket and forced a fumble. Kareem Martin’s recovery gave the ball to the Tar Heels on the Pirates’ 15-yard line. From there, it took just four plays for running back Giovani Bernard, who was playing in his first game since the season opener, to score for the second time.
A 10-6 Tar Heels lead quickly went to a 24-6 advantage.
“I was really happy to see Gio get back out there – to see him get hit, see me make people miss, see him jump, see him catch the ball, see him get in the end zone,” said North Carolina coach Fedora, who added that Bernard felt fine after the game. “That’s just going to give him more confidence.”
Like it had in the past, North Carolina dominated the second half. After outscoring East Carolina, 14-0, in the third quarter Saturday, North Carolina now holds a 52-0 margin over its opponents for the season in the third quarter.
“It’s not the halftime speeches, I’ll assure you,” Fedora said. “But it’s the guys trying to come out with the same intensity level that we do at the beginning of the game.”
After back-to-back losses, North Carolina, which played its first of three straight home games Saturday, finally regained its confidence. Beating a team for the fourth straight time and allowing the fewest points against them since 1981 will do that.
“We had a much better taste in our mouth (Saturday),” Fedora said.
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org